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Syrian troops storm town near Turkish border

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[August 11, 2011]  BEIRUT (AP) -- The Syrian army stormed a northwestern town near Turkey's border on Thursday, a day after authorities declared the military pulled out of the region, activists said.

The early morning assault on Saraqeb reflected the determination of President Bashar Assad to crush the five-month old uprising despite mounting international condemnation. The U.S. imposed new sanctions on Wednesday, and a flurry of foreign diplomats have rolled through Damascus urging Assad to end a campaign of killing that rights groups say has left about 1,700 dead since mid-March.

The attack on the town is particularly noteworthy because it sits in a province bordering Turkey. The area has witnessed intense protests against Assad's regime, forcing hundreds of Syrians to flee across the border. Turkey's foreign minister on Wednesday, a day after meeting with Assad, renewed his condemnation of the attacks.

In the latest incursion, troops stormed Saraqeb and detained at least 100 people, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Explosions and gunfire reverberated through the area after the army rolled in, said the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that helps organize and document the protests.

The military action came a day after the information ministry ferried local journalists to Idlib, the province in which Saraqeb sits. A senior army officer told reporters that troops were withdrawing to their barracks, leaving residential districts in the province's cities.

On the same day, Syrian security forces shot dead at least 15 people in the central flashpoint city of Homs, according to the LCC.

The government justified its attacks on various cities by saying it was dealing with terrorist gangs and criminals who were fomenting unrest.

The uprising was inspired by the revolutions and calls for reform sweeping the Arab world, and activists and rights groups say most of those killed have been unarmed civilians. An aggressive new military offensive that began with the Ramadan at the start of the month killed several hundred people in just one week.

The London-based observatory said authorities on Wednesday night detained opposition figure Hassan Zahra during a raid in a Damascus suburb. Zahra, a 67-year-old member of the Communist Action Front, was detained at least once since the uprising began, it said.

International condemnation over the crackdown has been strong, and growing more forceful.

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The Obama administration, which announced new sanctions Wednesday, is preparing for the first time to explicitly call for Assad to step down, officials have told the AP. The moves are a direct response to Assad's decision to escalate the crackdown by sending the army into opposition hotbeds.

The new sanctions affect the state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria and its Lebanon-based subsidiary, the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, for what the U.S. says are their links to human rights abuses and to illegal weapons trade with North Korea.

Mobile phone company Syriatel was targeted because it is controlled by "one of the regime's most corrupt insiders," said David Cohen, the U.S. Treasury Department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

The action freezes any assets the firms have in U.S. jurisdictions and bans Americans from doing business with them. But they may not have much immediate economic impact because the U.S. already severely limits trade and economic ties with Syria.

[Associated Press; By BASSEM MROUE]

Bassem Mroue can be reached at

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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