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Syrian troops fire at anti-regime protesters
Activists: Syrian troops open fire at protesters as thousands rally against regime
By The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) ' Activists say Syrian security forces have opened fire at thousands rallying in the country's central regions calling for the downfall of President Bashar Assad's regime.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least seven people were wounded Friday in the city of Homs. It says there are also casualties in the city of Hama.

The Observatory says the protests spread from the capital Damascus to the southern province of Daraa, the northwestern province of Idlib as well as the central regions of Hama and Homs.

Homs has been witnessing intense fighting between troops and army defectors in the past days.

The U.N. says some 2,700 people have already died in the government crackdown against the uprising the began in mid-March.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

BEIRUT (AP) ' Two days of clashes between Syrian troops and forces opposed to President Bashar Assad in a rebellious central town have killed seven soldiers and policemen, a Syrian military official said Friday.

The official said 32 Syrian troops were also wounded in the fighting as government forces conducted a "qualitative" operation on Thursday and Friday in the town of Rastan in the central Homs province in an effort to crush "gunmen" holed up inside the town.

The official said the gunmen had terrorized citizens, blocked roads and set up barriers and explosives, and were responsible for the deaths of the seven troops. The comments by the unidentified official were carried by state-run news agency SANA on Friday.

Rastan has witnessed some of the fiercest fighting in the six-month uprising against Assad, pitting the military against hundreds of army defectors, according to activists.

The town, from which the Syrian army draws many of its Sunni Muslim recruits, has seen some of the largest numbers of defections to date. A prominent human rights activist estimated there were around 2,000 defectors fighting in Rastan and nearby Talbiseh as well as in the Jabal al-Zawiyah region in the northern Idlib province.

He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The defectors, as well as reports that once-peaceful Syrian protesters are increasingly taking up arms to fight the six-month old government crackdown, have raised concerns of the risk of civil war in Syria.

Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

The U.N. says some 2,700 people have already died in the government crackdown.

The report carried by SANA Friday was an acknowledgment of the stiff resistance and ongoing clashes in Rastan, although the agency, echoing the official government line, describes the fighters as "terrorist armed groups," not defectors.

The military official said the confrontation resulted in the killing and detention of many of the gunmen. He said Syrian troops were still pursuing members of the terrorist groups in an effort to restore security to Rastan.

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