BEIRUT — Syrian troops shelled a town in the center of the country Monday, and for the first time in the two-month-old revolt against the president, residents armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades put up fierce resistance, activists said. State media said four soldiers were killed.
Most of the opposition to autocratic President Bashar Assad has taken the form of peaceful protests by unarmed demonstrators, though authorities have claimed throughout the uprising that it was being led by armed gangs and propelled by foreign conspiracies.
Two activists in the area said residents of two towns under attack in central Homs province since Sunday had taken up arms against troops and members of the security forces and that there were new casualties, though they did not know how many.
The Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which help organize and document the protests, said two bodies were found Monday morning in the area of Bab Amro cemetery, raising the death toll from the two-day crackdown in the country's turbulent heartland to 11.
"The army is facing armed resistance and is not able to enter the two towns," said a Homs resident who has wide connections in the province. "The army is still outside the towns and I was told that army vehicles, including armored personnel carriers, were burnt."
The other activist said the army "is being subjected to stiff resistance" by residents using automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades in the two towns, Tabliseh and Rastan. He said many people are armed in Syria and over the past years weapons have been smuggled into the country from Lebanon and Iraq.
Syria has barred foreign journalists from entering the country and prevented coverage of the revolt, making it nearly impossible to independently verify accounts coming out of the country.
Monday's accounts by the two activists, however, were the first credible reports of serious resistance by people who have taken up arms. It is not clear how widespread such resistance might be elsewhere in the country, but the government has claimed that more than 150 soldiers and policemen have been killed since the unrest began.
The Local Coordination Committees in Syria said military forces hit Tabliseh with artillery early Monday and that snipers were deployed on roofs of mosques.
Syrian troops, backed by tanks, have been conducting operations in Tabliseh and the nearby town of Rastan Teir Maaleh since Sunday.
Syria's state-run news agency said four soldiers were killed and 14 wounded in Tabliseh.
Assad's use of the military signals he is determined to crush the two-month-old revolt, despite U.S. and European sanctions, including an EU assets freeze and a visa ban on Assad and nine members of his regime.
The uprising, which began in mid-March, is posing the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year rule. What began as a disparate movement demanding reforms has erupted into a resilient uprising seeking Assad's ouster. Human rights groups say more than 1,000 people have been killed in the crackdown.
In Geneva, the U.N.'s top human rights official said Monday the brutality and magnitude of repression in Syria and Libya against anti-government groups is "shocking."
Navi Pillay, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the crackdown in those countries is marked by an "outright disregard for basic human rights."
He urged the Syrian government Monday to allow a U.N. fact-finding mission to visit the country. The team has been awaiting Syria's reply since requesting a visit on May 6.
Rights activist Mustafa Osso said troops have entered several towns in the restive Homs province and detained hundreds of people since Sunday. He added that since Sunday night, Rastan and Tabliseh have been subjected to heavy machine gun fire.
Residents of the Homs towns have held anti-regime protests since the start of the uprising. Those protests have increased recently, with crowds taking to the streets day and night to call for the fall of Assad's regime, an activist said.
Osso said there were several demonstrations in different parts of Syria overnight, adding that there were no reports of security forces opening fire.
In recent days, many Assad opponents have been holding protests and candlelight vigils at times of the night when the security presence has thinned out.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue
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