Syrian Army Raids Idlib as Outrage Mounts

Syrian troops launched a vast operation on Wednesday in Idlib province bordering Turkey and killed at least one person, activists said, amid growing outrage over the regime's crackdown on dissent.

A defiant President Bashar al-Assad pledged to pursue a relentless battle against "terrorist groups," seemingly oblivious to the mounting international pressure to stop the use of deadly force against pro-democracy protesters.

His troops stormed the city of Sermin in Idlib, with an initial toll of one dead, Rami Abdel Rahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"A woman was killed and three other people were wounded in the city of Sermin where Syrian forces launched a broad military campaign on Wednesday morning," he told Agence France Presse.

Abdel Rahman said earlier that security forces were using heavy machine guns in Sermin, leaving 10 wounded four of them in critical condition."

Explosions and heavy gunfire also echoed in the eastern oil hub of Deir al-Zour, Abdel Rahman said, adding that residents there fear a new military operation in the city where the army killed 42 people on Sunday.

"Tanks and troops carriers are cruising the streets of the Sheikh Yassin, Jbeileh and Muazzafeen neighborhoods," he added.

The authorities have blamed "outlaws," "saboteurs" and "armed terrorist groups" for the violence that has swept Syria since mid-March, while world powers have accused Syria of repressing violently pro-democracy protesters.

On Tuesday Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu delivered a message saying Ankara has "run out of patience," while his Egyptian counterpart Mohammed Amr warned that Syria was "heading to the point of no return."

Brazil, India and South Africa have all stepped into the diplomatic fray, dispatching envoys to Damascus to seek a solution to the crisis and end the bloody crackdown that has claimed more than 2,000 lives since mid-March.

Amr was also due in Turkey on Wednesday after Davutoglu's visit on Tuesday when he asked Assad to end the bloodshed and implement democratic reforms.

"We hope that some measures will be taken in the coming days to end the bloodshed and open the way to a process for political reform," Davutoglu said.

As troops were reportedly deploying in Sermin, dozens of military vehicles packed with soldiers streamed out of the flashpoint protest hub Hama in central Syria after completing a 10-day operation.

An AFP correspondent saw the soldiers leave as she toured Hama with other journalists on a government-sponsored visit.

"The army units have gone back to their barracks after having accomplished their mission, and residents, happy to be rid of the armed gangs who tried to sow discord among the population, have returned home," a high-ranking army officer said.

Troops backed by tanks stormed Hama on July 31, on the eve of the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, to fight "armed groups," killing 100 people in the single bloodiest day since the crackdown began, activists say.

The bloodshed triggered a deluge of international condemnation and prompted the U.N. Security Council, under pressure from European and U.S. leaders, to issue a statement demanding an end to the violence.

Russia, a traditional ally of Syria and armorer to Damascus, backed the statement after refusing to endorse a tougher formal resolution, and has since urged Syria to comply and engage in reform.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reaffirmed Moscow's position during a phone call with his counterpart Walid Muallem, stressing the "priority of ending violence and continuing efforts to conduct comprehensive political, social and economic reforms in Syria without delay," a statement said.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland highlighted the toughening U.S. and international stance.

"It is deeply regrettable that President Assad does not seem to be hearing the increasingly loud voice of the international community, a voice of concern that is now growing in strength, in volume and in number of countries making their views known," Nuland told reporters in Washington.

Gulf Cooperation Council nations Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait have all recalled their ambassadors to Damascus for consultations.

Al-Azhar -- Sunni Islam's top authority -- and the 22-member Arab League have also urged Syria to rein in the security forces, with al-Azhar saying the situation "has gone too far."

Overnight, some 2,000 people protested outside the Syrian embassy in Kuwait City to demand its envoy's expulsion and the "freezing" of relations with Damascus.

But Assad dug his heels in on Tuesday after meeting Davutoglu saying: "We will not waver in our pursuit of terrorist groups," state news agency SANA reported.

As he stood his ground, activists reported another 34 deaths on Tuesday, including 17 people killed by security forces in the eastern city of Deir al-Zour.

Source: Agence France Presse, Associated Press

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