Syrian troops enter village near Turkish border

June 23, 2011 - 2:58 AM
Turkey Syria

Syrians living in makeshift tents inside Syria near the Turkish border village of Guvecci are seen shortly before Turkey's Red Cresdent distribute free food alongside Turkey-Syria border near the Turkish village of Guvecci in Hatay province, Turkey, late Wednesday, June 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

BEIRUT (AP) — Activists say Syrian troops backed by tanks and snipers have entered a village along the Turkish border.

Thousands of Syrian refugees have been flooding into neighboring Turkey as the government cracks down on a 3-month-old uprising.

The revolt has posed the gravest challenge to President Bashar Assad's rule.

The Local Coordinating Committees, which track the Syrian protest movement, said Thursday that tanks had entered Khirbet al-Jouz and snipers were spotted on rooftops.

The opposition estimates 1,400 people have been killed and 10,000 detained in the crackdown.

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

BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian regime, besieged by street protests at home and condemnation abroad, on Wednesday lashed out at European governments for threatening a new round of sanctions and accused the West of trying to sow chaos and conflict in the Arab nation.

But Foreign Minister Walid Moallem also reiterated the president's call for national dialogue and spoke of democracy over the horizon — a bold assertion after more than four decades of iron-fisted rule by the Assad family and months of bloody reprisals.

It was the regime's latest attempt to blunt three months of widespread demonstrations, a movement that was inspired by pro-democracy upheavals elsewhere in the Mideast and that has persisted despite the reported killing of hundreds of protesters by security forces. A skeptical opposition rejected the overture while the Syrian military is occupying towns and shooting protesters. Seven were reported killed on Tuesday.

An official said the European Union is planning to hit the Syrian regime with more sanctions, targeting seven more individuals and four companies in a bid to stop the crackdown against protests. That would bring to 34 the number of Syrian individuals and entities that are hit with an asset freeze and travel ban.

The EU official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. The 27-member bloc also has an embargo on sales of arms and equipment that can be used to suppress demonstrations.

Moallem said the suggestion "amounts to (an act) of war" and warned "we will forget that Europe is on the map."

"Stop intervening in Syria's affairs, do not stir chaos nor strife, the Syrian people ... are capable of making their own future away from you," he said. "Any external intervention is rejected."

The televised statements by the longtime trusted Assad aide also went beyond the vague promises of reform made Monday by President Bashar Assad and amounted to a rare official admission that Syria has ignored basic democratic principles.

In his speech, President Assad had said he was forming a committee to study constitutional amendments, including one that would open the way to political parties other than the ruling Baath Party. He said a package of reforms was expected by September or no later than the end of the year.

Moallem added a promise that the Damascus government would soon present "an unprecedented example of democracy" in the troubled Middle East.

"There will be social justice, equality before the law and accountability," he said, when asked about his vision for Syria in three months. But he gave no specifics.

Moallem called for regime opponents to enter into political talks, and urged Syrian exiles to return, pledging that "even the harshest opponent" of the regime will not be arrested.

"Whoever wants to test our seriousness should come to the national dialogue to be a partner in shaping the future," he said.

But a prominent dissident rejected the idea of talks.

"There can be no dialogue when a gun is being held to your head," Damascus-based activist Hassan Abdul-Azim said.

Responding to Moallem's statements, the dissident Abdul-Azim said dialogue was impossible with the regime's security forces still cracking down on dissent. "Such a dialogue would provide a cover for the security crackdown," he told The Associated Press.

That view was echoed at the highest level of the United Nations later Wednesday, when Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told New York reporters he didn't see "much credibility" in the Assad statements "because the situation has been continuing."

The U.N. chief suggested unified Security Council action to pressure Syria "would be helpful." Russia and China have opposed such action.

The U.S. State Department also demanded action instead of words, saying the status quo was unacceptable.

"They've thrown around a lot of rhetoric, and meanwhile, they've used unremitting violence against innocent civilians," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

Syria dissidents noted that previous talk of reform has produced little change in Syria's autocratic system.

"We are not against dialogue in principle, but we currently have no confidence or guarantees that anything would be implemented," said London-based Syrian activist Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights

Among the opposition's demands is the withdrawal of Syrian troops from cities, trials for security personnel responsible for killing protesters and the release of all political prisoners.

The opposition estimates 1,400 people have been killed and 10,000 detained in the attempted suppression of the 3-month-old pro-democracy movement, which was inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Hundreds of soldiers and police officers have also been killed.

Activists said the sweeping arrests have continued even after Assad's speech. Abdul-Rahman and others said dozens of students were beaten and others detained, including female students, during a raid at Damascus University dormitories Tuesday night.

Abdul-Azim said the scattered opposition movement would announce within a week the formation of a National Coordination Council for democratic change, encompassing all groups inside and outside Syria.

The foreign minister sounded confident there would be no Western military intervention or no-fly zone over Syria, saying the international community is mired in the "scandals" of its military intervention in Libya.

Moallem added that Arab countries "without exception" support Damascus. The Arab League on Monday issued a statement of support for Syria and opposition to foreign intervention there.

Moallem also denied that Syrian allies Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement are helping the Damascus regime put down unrest. The U.S. has accused Iran of sending reinforcements and equipment to Syria.

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Associated Press writers Raf Casert in Brussels and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram