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Syrian troops, rebels launch attacks in northwestern border province, 26 reported killed
BEIRUT (AP) ' Syrian security forces and anti-government military defectors launched attacks that left 26 people dead in a restive northwestern border region, activists and Syrian media said Tuesday.
Regime forces swept through villages and attacked infiltrators at the border, and anti-regime fighters staged a retaliatory ambush and assassinated a senior officer, the reports said.
The flare-up of violence in Idlib province on Monday and Tuesday highlighted how Syria's uprising, which earlier this year involved mostly peaceful demonstrations in small towns and cities, has become a virtual insurgency in the countryside along the Turkish border.
Military defectors known as the Free Syrian Army have found shelter alongside thousands of Syrian refugees on the Turkish side, making use of mountainous terrain, local smuggling networks and support among villagers on the Syrian side to stage cross-border attacks.
President Bashar Assad's forces have responded with stepped-up border patrols and reprisal raids on villages where anti-regime protests have been frequent.
The bloodshed in Syria, which the U.N. said Monday has left at least 5,000 dead, has resulted in increasing pressure on the Assad regime, including sanctions by the United States, the E.U. and the Arab League.
Some key nations have resisted the measures. Russia's foreign minister on Tuesday rebuffed calls for Moscow to back the sanctions and slammed the West for ignoring violence by the Syrian opposition.
The deadliest incident in the past two days took place in two villages near the Turkish border early Tuesday, after security forces entered and shot two civilians dead, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the British-based Syrian Observation Center.
Residents of Maaret Musreen and Kfar Bahmoul responded by closing a main road to the Syrian troops, who then opened fire at random, he said, killing 11 civilians died and wounding 26.
The observatory said security forces also killed three other people in the provincial capital of Idlib and two in the central province of Homs.
The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group, gave a similar death toll.
"These are intentional killings by the terrorists gangs of the regime," said Abu Mohammed, a resident of the nearby town of Maaret al-Numan, said,
"We will not abandon our demands," he said. "We want the downfall of the regime and we want the president to be put on trial, because he is behind the killings that the Syrian people are being subjected to."
Later in the morning, army defectors retaliated by attacking a security convoy in the nearby town of Bab el-Hawa, killing seven troops, Abdul-Rahman said.
Syria's state media, for its part, reported that border guards intercepted 15 gunmen trying to infiltrate from Turkey on Monday night. It said two were killed in the ensuing firefight and others were injured.
It was the second such infiltration attempt from Turkey in a week.
SANA also reported that "armed terrorists" ' its usual term for regime opponents ' shot and killed Brig. Gen. Ghanem Ibrahim al-Hassan, who teaches at the Assad Military Engineering Academy in the town of Saraqeb in Idlib.
Since the revolt began, the Assad regime has blamed the bloodshed on terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to divide and undermine Syria. Until recently, most deaths appeared to be caused by security forces firing on mainly peaceful protests.
The growing number of armed attacks by the opposition was cited by Russia's foreign minister Sergey Lavrov as a reason to oppose future "ultimatums" against Damascus.
Sergei Lavrov said at news conference following his talks with Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci that Moscow supported an Arab League plan to send observers to Syria to reduce the violence and has advised Syria to accept them.
He also criticized the West for taking an "immoral" stand by placing sanctions on Assad's government while turning a blind eye to violent action by regime opponents.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue