Syrian forces storm Rastan to fight defectors; FM accuses west of sowing chaos

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Syrian forces backed by tanks and helicopters stormed a strategic town on Tuesday after fighting with army defectors, in a major operation to subdue pro-democracy protests in the center of the country, residents said, as Syria’s Foreign Minister accused western powers of trying to unleash “total chaos” to break up the country.

Tens of tanks and armored vehicles entered Rastan, a town of 40,000 on the highway to Turkey near the city of Homs, after pounding it overnight with heavy machineguns from tanks and attack helicopters following a two-day siege, they said, according to Reuters.

“At least 20 people were wounded, seven seriously, when soldiers using heavy machine guns on tanks began to open fire at sunrise in Rastan,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.

“Loud explosions were also heard in the city,” it added, according to AFP.

“Tanks closed in on Rastan overnight and the sound of machine guns and explosions has been non-stop. They finally entered this morning,” said one of the residents, who gave his name as Abu Qassem.

Another resident said machine guns had been fired from helicopters near his house on the southern edge of Rastan, where hundreds of army defectors who took refuge in the town in the last few weeks -- including some in tanks -- had been resisting loyalist forces, Reuters reported.

“We have not been able to go out onto the streets for two days and we have no idea of the casualties,” he said.

The Local Coordination Committees, which organize protests on the ground, for its part reported a “massive deployment” of security forces at Rastan.

The Observatory, meanwhile, also reported witnesses as saying that sustained automatic gunfire was heard on Tuesday morning at Talbisseh, 10 kilometers south of Rastan.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva has said the death toll from the crackdown on dissent since March 15 has risen to more than 2,700.

Denouncing international intervention

Syria, meanwhile, denounced international intervention and accused the West of trying to unleash “total chaos,” as rights activists said troops on Monday shot dead four soldiers who had tried to desert.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said the West wanted chaos that will lead to the break-up of the country. Anti-regime protests were also a “pretext for foreign interventions,” he said at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, according to AFP.

China meanwhile expressed its concern at the wider implications of the violence in Syria, even as the United States pressed Beijing, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, to back stronger U.N. action against Damascus.

Foreign governments were trying to undermine co-existence between Syria’s different religious groups, he added.

“How can we otherwise explain media provocations, financing and arming religious extremism?” he said.

“What purpose could this serve other than total chaos that would dismember Syria -- and consequently adversely affect its neighbors?”

Rejecting the accusations, Germany’s Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for U.N. Security Council action.

“The courageous men and women in Syria deserve a clear signal of our solidarity,” Westerwelle told the U.N. assembly, condemning the “brutal force” used by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Damascus does not accept the existence of popular opposition to the authorities, instead blaming “armed gangs” and “terrorists” for trying to sow chaos.

How can we otherwise explain media provocations, financing and arming religious extremism? he said. What purpose could this serve other than total chaos that would dismember Syria -- and consequently adversely affect its neighbors?

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem

Condemnation of military operations

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal on Monday reiterated the kingdom’s “condemnation of military operations against the defenseless people in sisterly Syria,” Reuters reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the death of the soldiers.

“Four soldiers in Maar Shamsa in (northwestern) Idlib were shot dead while trying to flee the Wadi Deif military camp,” it said. The group also reported gunfire, arrests and killings.

In New York, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi expressed Beijing’s concern over the dragging crisis.

The international community, he said, should “handle the Syrian issue in a prudent way so as to prevent further turbulence in Syria and its repercussions on regional peace.”

And in a call to opposition demonstrators as well as Assad’s forces, Yang said “we hope that parties in Syria will exercise restraint, avoid any form of violence or more bloodshed and conflict, and act quickly to ease tension.”

China has joined Russia in leading opposition to U.N. sanctions against the Assad government in Syria, where the United Nations says that more than 2,700 people have been killed since March.

U.S. pressure on China

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged China to back strong U.N. action on Syria when she met Yang just before his speech, a senior U.S. official said.

The Britain-based Observatory reported soaring tensions in central Homs province, a hub of protests against the Assad regime.

“The army has deployed in the villages of the Qusseir region (south of Homs), where two unidentified bodies were found in the Assi river.”

“There are also mutilated bodies at the National Hospital” in Qusseir, where 12 people were killed and 15 were reported missing in military operations on Saturday, it said.

North of Homs, “many security checkpoints have been set up on the roads leading to Rastan, where heavy machine-gun fire was heard this morning.”

In northwestern Idlib province, near the Turkish border, security forces stormed villages, setting up roadblocks and arresting 17 people.

The Observatory also said that in the rebel city of Hama, “a civilian died and three others were wounded by gunfire on Sunday night on the Mhardeh-Hilfaya road.”

In the southern city of Dael, in Daraa province, where the first protests ignited in mid-March, there was intense gunfire overnight after the city council building was set on fire, which residents blamed on pro-regime militias.

The state-run SANA news agency reported the seizure of “arms and ammunition” in a house in the Deraa village of Nassib near the Jordanian border, and the discovery of a carload of “Israeli arms and explosives charges in Homs.”

SANA also reported the funeral of four soldiers and security officers, as well as that of a doctor who had been killed in Homs.