- NEW: Report says missing Turkish journalists handed to Syrian intelligence
- The death toll is “fast approaching 10,000,” an activist says
- U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan will brief the U.N. Security Council on Friday
- Iran said it has shipped humanitarian aid to Syria
(CNN) — After a year of tenacious protests and a fierce crackdown in Syria, the embattled regime pressed on Thursday in its assault across Idlib province, the latest opposition enclave pounced on by authorities.
According to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, government security forces, which have been bombarding the city of Idlib, cleared it of “terrorist” elements, confiscated explosives and weapons and battled “armed terrorist groups” in the surrounding countryside.
At least 23 people were found dead Thursday morning near a farm west of Idlib, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the London-based opposition group. The bodies, which bore clear signs of torture, were found blindfolded, bound and shot, the activist group said.
The Local Coordination Committees of Syria, or LCC, another opposition activist network, said 37 people in Idlib were among the 46 who died in Syria Thursday.
Human Rights Watch said Thursday that activists have compiled a list of at least 114 civilians killed since the assault on Idlib began Saturday.
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Government forces with large-caliber machine-guns, tanks and mortars fired “indiscriminately at buildings and people in the street. After they entered Idlib, government forces detained people in house-to-house searches, looted buildings, and burned down houses,” Human Rights Watch said, citing witness accounts.
Two Turkish journalists who had gone missing during a visit to Idlib province have been seized by pro-government militia in the village of el-Fua and handed over to Syrian intelligence, Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported. There was no immediate comment from Turkey’s Foreign Ministry.
Residents in and around Idlib are fleeing to Turkey, according to a Turkish diplomatic source, with 1,000 Syrians crossing into the country over the last 24 hours. Syria is trying to plant mines along the border and deploy a large number of soldiers to the area, the source said.
“This is the reason that prevents a mass influx of Syrians into Turkey. Otherwise it would be tens of thousands, not just thousands,” the source said.
At present, there are 14,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, and the government is working to set up new camps.
“City after city, town after town, Syria’s security forces are using their scorched earth methods while the (U.N.) Security Council’s hands remain tied by Russia and China,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “One year on, the Security Council should finally stand together and send a clear message to (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) that these attacks should end.”
The unrest rages on amid the one-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising, the widespread grass-roots resistance to the policies and rule of al-Assad. Similar uprisings across the Arab world, from Tunisia to Yemen, and the populace’s grinding political and economic grievances inspired the protests.
A year ago, security forces cracked down on hundreds who turned out in the southern city of Daraa, angry about the mistreatment of local children who were jailed for painting anti-government graffiti. The violence in Daraa sparked the yearlong regime crackdown and catalyzed the uprising.
More than 8,000 civilians have been killed during the Syrian crisis, the United Nations says. Opposition activists said the overall toll is exceeding 9,000. LCC spokeswoman Rafif Jouejati said the numbers are “fast approaching 10,000.”
Countless others are missing, thousands are injured and hundreds of thousands have fled. And as the international community ponders a solution, the daily carnage seems endless.
Aside from the deaths in Idlib, the LCC reported other deaths in Hama, Daraa, Homs and Aleppo.
The opposition Free Syrian Army struck a security force vehicle in the Daraa province town of Tafas and killed the passengers inside. Security forces entered the town and clashes were reported between soldiers and the FSA — the resistance force led and made up of military defectors.
“The regime’s tanks have deployed in Tafas and are firing indiscriminately leading to several martyrs,” the LCC said.
Shelling continued Thursday in the besieged city of Homs, marking the sixth day of relentless attacks there.
An “unprecedented number” of people fled Hama, especially in one district in which government forces scrawled cryptic messages on the walls of mosques, warning residents they had 24 hours to evacuate, an activist said.
Al-Assad’s regime routinely insists “armed terrorist groups” are behind the bloodshed in Syria. It says it has popular support for its actions, and Thursday, government news outlets reported thousands of Syrians gathering in city squares to show their “love” and loyalty” for their homeland.
CNN cannot independently confirm reports of casualties or attacks in Syria because the government has severely restricted the access of international journalists.
But most reports from inside the country indicate the regime is slaughtering civilians to wipe out dissidents seeking al-Assad’s ouster. The al-Assad family has ruled Syria for more than four decades.
World powers have slammed the al-Assad regime. The Netherlands is the latest country to close its Damascus embassy, with Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal citing the “deteriorating security situation” and “appalling” violence. Rosenthal said the government will support and maintain contact with the opposition.
Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League special envoy on Syria, will brief the U.N. Security Council on the situation in a closed teleconference Friday.
Annan, who met last weekend with al-Assad in Damascus, has been trying to get responses from Syrian authorities to proposals laid out over the weekend for ending the bloodshed.
Three U.S. administration officials said earlier that al-Assad doesn’t recognize the former U.N. secretary-general as the Arab League’s representative and had rejected Annan’s efforts. Al-Assad also said he will not do anything until the opposition lays down its arms, the sources said.
Jihad Maqdisi, Syrian Foreign and Expatriates Ministry spokesman, said Wednesday that “we (are) committed to make a success of Annan’s mission providing that it goes in line with the Syrian specificity, and that requires the international and regional efforts be brought together,” according to Syria’s state-run news agency.
Russia and China have balked at supporting tough U.N. Security Council action against Syria. World powers and activists want a resolution that would demand an end to the government’s shelling and unhindered aid access for hard-hit areas.
Human Rights Watch said a resolution should also “provide for targeted sanctions against officials involved in the abuse and an embargo on arms delivery to the Syrian government, and refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.”
Iran, a Syrian regime ally, shipped 40 tons of humanitarian aid to Syria Thursday and plans to send more relief, including food, ambulances, tents and blankets, Iran’s Press TV said.
CNN’s Nic Robertson, Kareem Khadder, Amir Ahmed, Ivan Watson and journalist Anna Ozbek contributed to this report.
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