Syrian troops and rebels clash across country

The aerial assault targeted the strategic river crossing town of Rastan, which has resisted repeated government offensives for months, the activists said.

This citizen journalism image provided by Shaam News Network SNN, taken on Friday, June 8, 2012 purports to show a girl holding the Syrian revolutionary flag during a demonstration in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, Syria. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network, SNN)THE ASSOCIATED PRESS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS HANDOUT PHOTO

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops attacked a central, rebel-held town with helicopter gunships Monday and shelled other restive areas across the nation, activists said.

The aerial assault targeted the strategic river crossing town of Rastan, which has resisted repeated government offensives for months, the activists said.

Violence has escalated in recent weeks with both sides ignoring a U.N. brokered cease-fire that was supposed to go into effect April 12 but never took hold.

"The regime is now using helicopters more after its ground troops suffered major losses," said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the Britain-based activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which uses a network of sources on the ground. "Dozens of vehicles have been destroyed or damaged" since the end of May, he said.

Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi recently said that rebels are now using sophisticated anti-tank missiles. Videos posted by activists over the past week have shown many destroyed tanks and armored personnel carriers.

The Observatory and another activist coalition, the Local Coordination Committees, also reported government shelling in the central provinces of Hama and Homs, where Rastan is located, as well as the southern region of Daraa, the northern province of Aleppo, and suburbs of the capital Damascus and Deir el-Zour in the east.

The LCC said 33 people were killed around the country on Monday. It was impossible to independently confirm the toll.

The Observatory reported at least 24 deaths throughout Syria for the day including four civilians and an army defector in shelling in the area of Ashara in Deir el-Zour. It said another eight unidentified bodies had been discovered nearby. It reported three dead in the Hama shelling, four in Rastan and four near the northern city of Idlib.

The Observatory also said a bomb targeted a security force in the northern city of Idlib, killing seven soldiers and a civilian. There was no immediate confirmation from state media.

In Damascus, state-run news agency SANA said authorities foiled an attempt to blow up a car rigged with 700 kilograms (1,540 pounds) of explosives in the Damascus suburb of Chebaa. Experts dismantled it Monday, SANA said.

Syrian activists say 13,000 people have been killed in violence since the uprising began in March 2011.

The bloodshed has led to broad condemnation of the regime from the international community, although Russia, Iran and China have stood by President Bashar Assad. Russia and China have vetoed two Security Council resolutions that threatened possible sanctions against Syria.

Russia has refused to support any move that could lead to foreign intervention in Syria, Moscow's last significant ally in the Middle East.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit Syria's ally Iran on Wednesday.

In Israel, the deputy military chief warned that Syria's large chemical weapons stocks could be trained on the Jewish state. According to Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh, Syria has the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the world. If the Syrians had the chance, he said, they would "treat us the same way they treat their own people."

Syria has not declared its chemical weapons stocks so the exact size is not known. Among other things, Israel is worried that such weapons could fall into the hands of anti-Israel militants should the regime crumble.

Israeli radio stations and newspapers carried Naveh's remarks on Monday. He delivered them Sunday night at a ceremony in Jerusalem commemorating fallen soldiers.

Israel has been watching the carnage in neighboring Syria with increasing concern. The two countries have fought major wars and multiple attempts to reach a peace deal have failed. Syria has strong ties to Iran, Israel's most fearsome enemy, and to Palestinian and Lebanese militants who have fought wars against Israel.

In Germany, the country's defense minister sharply rejected the idea of military intervention in Syria, referring to those who ask for it as waffling "coffeehouse intellectuals."

Thomas de Maiziere told Monday's edition of German daily taz: "The continued waffling by people who bear none of the responsibility creates expectations in regions like Syria, thereby causing terrible disappointment."

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Sunday that he could not rule out military intervention in Syria, saying the situation there is beginning to resemble the violence that gripped Bosnia in the 1990s.

Associated Press
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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