BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces pursuing anti-government protesters stormed several towns and villages Monday, killing at least six people — including a child — and wounding many others during raids and house-to-house searches, activists said.
The largest operation appeared to be in Sarameen in the northern Idlib province, where the London-based Observatory for Human Rights said five people were killed and more than 60 wounded. One person also died during raids in Qara, a suburb of the capital, Damascus.
Similar raids were reported in the village of Heet near the border with Lebanon, along with a military buildup just outside the central town of Rastan, which has become a hotbed of dissent against President Bashar Assad's regime during the 5-month-old uprising.
The prime minister of Turkey, a former close ally, warned Assad that his regime could face a demise like those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya if the violent suppression of protests does not stop.
Syria has come under blistering international condemnation for its deadly crackdown on anti-government protests that began in March, and U.S. and European leaders have demanded Assad step down.
The comments from Turkey were some of the bluntest warnings yet and were particularly biting because they came from a leader whose government had extensive diplomatic ties with Syria.
"The only way out is to immediately silence arms and to listen to the people's demands," said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, speaking in his monthly address aired on Turkish TV late Sunday. "We have been watching the fate of those who did not chose this path in the past few months in Tunisia, in Egypt — and now in Libya — as a warning and with sadness."
"Demands for democracy and freedom are the people's just demands. In today's world, there is no place for one-man rule, for autocratic regimes and closed communities," he said.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry warned its citizens who are traveling to Syria or other countries via Syria to remain vigilant and be aware that they are at risk.
"The latest developments in Syria have started to negatively affect the safety" of Turkish citizens traveling to Syria, the statement said.
On Saturday, Turkish President Abdullah Gul told state-run Anatolia news agency that Turkey has "lost its confidence" in Syrian regime.
Assad still has some international allies, including Iran and Russia.
Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, said Assad met Monday with senior Russian envoy Mikhail Bogdanov, who expressed Moscow's support for Assad's plans for reform in Syria.
Assad, in turn, complained that his attempts at reform were met with a "regional and international campaign targeting Syria," SANA said, an apparent reference to the widespread condemnation of the crackdown.
Assad has shrugged off the calls for him to step down, insisting that armed gangs and thugs are driving the violence, not true reform-seekers.
In Sarameen, five people, including a child, were killed and more than 60 wounded during security raids, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and the Local Coordination Committees, an activist group.
Witnesses reported heavy machine gun fire by regime forces at the southern entrance to the central town of Rastan.
The heavy deployment around Rastan, which started early Monday, sent residents fleeing out of fear the town would be stormed.
Rastan, on the main highway to Turkey, has been the site of intense anti-regime protests.
Similar operations were ongoing in Heet, where some residents were reportedly fleeing to Lebanon.
The Associated Press could not verify the activists' accounts. Syria has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it impossible to get independent confirmation of the events on the ground.
The operations there are part of the regime's deadly crackdown on anti-government protests. Human rights groups say more than 2,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising in March.
Rights groups said three people were killed overnight in the eastern town of al-Boukamal near the border with Iraq. Abdul-Rahman said the three were killed during raids by security forces in pursuit of activists in the town.
Sporadic gunfire was also reported in various parts of the country.
Also Monday, in the wake of scattered calls among Syrian protesters to take up arms, activists warned that "militarizing the revolution" would backfire. The calls to take up arms are not widespread, and most protesters emphasize that their movement is peaceful.
The dispute has implications for the future of the Syrian uprising, which still has no clear leadership.
"While we understand the motivation to take up arms or call for military intervention, we specifically reject this position," said a statement from the Local Coordination Committees. "Militarization would ... erode the moral superiority that has characterized the revolution since its beginning."
Associated Press writer Suzan Fraser contributed to this report from Ankara, Turkey.
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram