SYRIAN troops have swept into new villages in the north-west as the second city Aleppo saw anti-regime protests and as pro-democracy dissidents joined ranks at home and abroad, activists said.
About 60 tanks and armoured personnel carriers entered two villages in the countryside of Idlib province, said Rami Abdel Rahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The operation was the latest in a campaign to quash dissent against the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad as pro-democracy protests gathered steam and opposition figures joined hands to press for reform.
Abdel Rahman said troops leaving the village of Al-Bara split into two units, one heading towards the village of Kafr Nabl and the other to Kansafra.
Early on Thursday soldiers stormed Al-Bara, a hamlet known for its Roman remains, Abdel Rahman said.
“Heavy gunfire rang out, probably to terrorise villagers to prevent them from leaving their homes,” he said.
After the operation villagers fled Al-Bara and the nearby villages of Al-Rami, Mar-Ayan and Kafr Haya, “heading south and west,” Abdel Rahman said.
On Wednesday, 10 civilians were shot dead by troops in a cluster of villages in Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawiyah district, Abdel Rahman told AFP in Nicosia.
The crackdown comes in defiance of repeated global condemnation and warnings from Western powers to Syria to show restraint and despite new US sanctions against key regime pillars and Syria’s top ally Iran.
Dennis Kucinich, a US Democratic Representative under fire over a trip to Syria, said on Thursday Assad had promised him that he would “remove his forces from the cities.”
“I appealed to President Assad to remove his forces from the cities. He told me he would, and today we learned that he has begun to do just that,” Kucinich said in a statement released by his office in Washington.
The Observatory says 1,353 civilians have been killed since mid-March in the crackdown and that 343 security force personnel have also died. Thousands have been arrested.
However, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Vienna on Thursday the alliance would not take action despite the crackdown.
“We have no plan to intervene in Syria,” he said.
“We operate in Libya on the basis of a UN mandate and the support of countries of the region,” he added, which was not the situation regarding Syria.
“Having said that I strongly condemn the behaviour of the security forces and the crackdown on the civil population,” Rasmussen added.
In Aleppo, a bastion of the regime and Syria’s commercial hub, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters swept into the streets on Thursday, prompting security forces to use batons to disperse them, activists said.
“Hundreds of people took part in several neighbourhoods of Aleppo,” said Abdel Karim Rihawi, president of the Syrian League for Human Rights.
“Security forces dispersed the protesters who were chanting slogans calling for freedom, using batons.”
Rihawi said that two people were reportedly injured and that some pro-regime supporters held counter-demonstrations.
Another activist, Raman Kanjo, said “dozens of people were injured and dozens more arrested.”
A Facebook group that has been a motor of the uprising had urged Syrians to march on Thursday on Aleppo to demand Assad’s ouster, and to rally nationwide on Friday.
“The Aleppo Volcano. The people want the fall of the regime,” pro-democracy activists said in a message posted by the Syrian Revolution 2011 on Facebook.
“Revolutionaries, come to Aleppo and Idlib provinces… and go to central Aleppo… to protest and to light the spark of the Revolution.”
The group also called on people to rally after weekly Muslim prayers, branding July 1 “the Friday of departure” and saying in a message to Assad: “We don’t love you… Go away, you and your party.”
The opposition also turned up the heat on Assad, announcing the creation of a “national coordination committee” of exiled dissidents and opponents at home to push for democratic reforms.
“A national coordination committee has been formed, seeking national and democratic change in Syria,” rights lawyer Hassan Abdel Azim told AFP.
The committee “has drafted a political document that has been sent to political parties and (opposition) figures for discussion and approval.”
The announcement comes after about 160 dissidents, several of whom have spent years in jail as political prisoners, gathered in Damascus on Monday and vowed to press ahead with a peaceful uprising.
The crackdown against Syrian protesters has been widely condemned and met with a series of sanctions.
On Wednesday the US Treasury issued a new sanctions list, targeting Syria’s Political Security Directorate and air force intelligence chief Major General Jamil Hassan.
Assad and six top aides have already been sanctioned by Washington, and the Syrian president is also on a list of 23 figures hit by an assets freeze and an EU travel ban.