At least 55 dead in Syria violence as refugees flock out of country

At least 55 dead in Syria violence as refugees flock out of country

Violence raged in Syria Thursday, with at least 55 deaths reported, while thousands fled for safety to nearby Turkey as the pro-democracy revolt against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad entered its second year, dpa reported.

The surge in violence came as UN-Arab League special envoy for Syria, Kofi Annan, is scheduled to report to the UN Security Council on his diplomatic efforts to end the conflict in Syria on Friday.

During a high-profile peace mission to the Syrian capital last week, Annan made proposals to al-Assad calling for: halting violence; securing humanitarian access to civilian areas; and initiating inclusive political dialogue. Annan left Syria without a deal.

In a clear rebuff to Annan's initiative, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdisi said that his country was pressing ahead with the use of force to crush dissent.

"The government wants to eliminate the arms that were raised against the authorities," Makdisi said.

On the ground, al-Assad's forces appeared to be pushing to capture the two hubs of the opposition Syrian Free Army: the northern province of Idlib, which lies near the Syrian-Turkish border; and Daraa, near the Syrian-Jordanian border, where the revolution began on March 15, 2011.

Troops backed by tanks were heading to Daraa, in a move seen by activists as a preparation for a widescale attack on the province.

In Idlib, government forces reportedly killed at least 45 people on Thursday.

The deaths included 23 whose bodies were found near Idlib, said Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Ten others were killed Thursday in shelling attacks by government troops in the town of Rastan in the central province of Homs, said activists.

The observatory said Thursday that 9,113 people, most of them civilians, have been killed across Syria since the outbreak of the revolt.

"The death toll includes 6,645 civilians, 1,997 soldiers and security service agents, and 471 army defectors," the watchdog said in a statement.

On Thursday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said that around 1,000 Syrian refugees, including a defecting general, had crossed into Turkey in the past 24 hours.

Activists, meanwhile, said that Syrian government forces had started to plant mines along the northern border with Turkey to stem the exodus of refugees.

The total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey now stands at 14,700, a spokesman for the Turkish Foreign Ministry told dpa.

"Two months ago, the number stabilized at around 7,500. But, over the past few weeks, it has been rising steadily," he said.

Turkey has been receiving refugees from Syria and housing them in border camps since the uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad began a year ago.

Meanwhile, thousands of al-Assad's loyalists rallied Thursday in the capital, Damascus, to show support, according to state media.

Official television showed footage of thousands thronging Damascus' main square as they carried pictures of al-Assad and waved the national flag.

News from Syria is hard to independently verify as the government has barred foreign media from the country since the uprising began.

The escalation of violence Thursday prompted the rights group Human Rights Watch to urge Russia and China to back a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on Damascus to halt attacks on civilian areas and allow humanitarian and media access into the country.

Russia and China, key allies of al-Assad's regime, have vetoed two UN Security Council resolutions on the Syrian unrest, which the UN estimates to have killed more than 8,000 people.

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