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Syrian tanks, troops occupy village on Turkish border

Syrian troops and tanks moved into a village on the border with Turkey on Saturday, the second such move in less than a week as aid workers scramble to build a tent city for an expected exodus of refugees, rights activists say.

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AFP - Syrian tanks on Saturday rolled into a village on the border with Turkey, where workers are scrambling to erect a huge tent city anticipating a new exodus of refugees from the crackdown.

"The army backed by tanks and troop carriers entered Al-Najia as part of its deployment in the province of Idlib," the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, told AFP in Nicosia.

Al-Najia is on the road linking the northwestern city of Latakia to Jisr al-Shughhur -- home to 50,000 people, most of whom fled after the army seized the town on June 12, with many crossing into Turkey.

The latest operation came just days after the army moved into Khirbet al-Joz, another village near the border, and amid EU condemnation of Syria's resort to "shocking violence" against peaceful dissent.

On Friday, the state-run SANA news agency reported that the army had "completed" its deployment in and around Jisr al-Shughur and quoted a military official as urging villagers who had fled their homes to return.

The authorities blame "terrorist armed groups" for the unrest that has gripped Syria since pro-democracy protests broke out in mid-March, and say the military deployments are aimed at rooting them out.

The army's sweep through protest centres in the northwest has sent nearly 12,000 Syrians fleeing to safety in neighbouring Turkey, which is scrambling to accommodate the refugees on its Hatay border province with Syria.

Syrian crackdown

More than 200 tents have already been erected in the camp while another 1,000 are due to be ready in a week in the village of Apaydin with a capacity for up to 15,000 people, village headman Omer Cagatay said.

Syria's Red Crescent chief, Abdurrahman Attar, said on Saturday that the refugees would not face retribution or interrogation if they returned home, Turkey's Anatolia news agency reported.

"We, as the Red Crescent, guarantee that the Syrian government will not call (the refugees) to account and under no circumstances will security forces take decisions about them," Attar was quoted as saying.

President Bashar al-Assad on Tuesday ordered a general amnesty in a bid to quell rising unrest, a day after offering a "national dialogue."

But tens of thousands of people calling for the regime's ouster protested on Friday in response to a call by the Facebook group Syrian Revolution 2011 -- the driving force behind three months of anti-regime demonstrations.

Security forces opened fire and rained tear gas on the protesters, killing 18 people and wounding scores more, activists told AFP.

Five people died in the Damascus neighbourhood of Barzeh, six in the town of Kiswah south of the capital, and seven in and around the central city of Homs, they said.

Abdul Karim Rihawi of the Syrian League for Human Rights said funerals were held on Saturday in all three protest centres for the victims of Friday's violence.

More than 150 people were rounded up between Friday and Saturday in house-to-house searches in the neighbourhood of Barzeh and some 70 arrests were made in Mareh near Aleppo, the London-based Observatory said.

Protests in Aleppo, Syria's second city, have been muted since the pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in mid-March.

But the Syrian Revolution 2011 called on demonstrators to "get ready for a volcano" in Aleppo next Thursday, in a message posted on its main Facebook page.

The Observatory says 1,332 civilians have been killed in the government's crackdown and that 341 security force personnel had also lost their lives.

EU leaders adopted a declaration in Brussels on Friday denouncing "in the strongest possible terms the ongoing repression and unacceptable and shocking violence the Syrian regime continues to apply against its own people."

Opposition figures announced they will hold a meeting in Damascus on Monday to discuss "how to solve the crisis."

"We will talk so that we can formulate a national strategy on how to end Syria's current crisis," Abdel Karim Rihawi, president of the Syrian League for Human Rights, told AFP.

But the grouping of more than 100 independents with no ties to political parties is not the "spokesperson of protesters in the street," the rights activist added.

 

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