Syrian Troops Mass Near Border Town as Tensions Mount

Posted July 17th, 2011 at 9:00 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian forces have surrounded a town on the Iraqi border as the country's opposition took a step closer to forming an alternative government that would challenge President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power.

About 1,000 troops flown in by helicopter and backed by tanks and armored vehicles massed Sunday around the troubled eastern town of al-Boukamal near Iraq's Sunni heartland. The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper reported that the situation in the poor, border town is “explosive,” and that a military operation is imminent.

The extra security forces arrived after military intelligence agents in al-Boukamal killed five protesters, including a 14-year-old boy, on Saturday. The killings drove thousands into the streets, overwhelming Mr. Assad's forces.

Residents say about 100 Syrian troops in the border town, including dozens of Syrian Air Force personnel and the crew of at least four armored vehicles, defected to join the four-month-old anti-government uprising.

Syria's state news agency said “terrorist gangs” killed three security members in al-Boukamal on Saturday.

Sunni tribes in the area wield great influence and have extended relations with their Iraqi brethren across the border. Sunni Muslims comprise the majority of Syria's population. But Mr. Assad's clan, part of the minority Shi'ite Alawite sect, has governed for four decades.

Elsewhere, about 2,000 soldiers in armored vehicles entered the western town of Zabadani, on the Lebanese border, detaining at least 70 people early Sunday.

The moves came as Syria's fractured opposition made its first attempt to unite, forming a 25-member National Salvation Council composed of Islamists, liberals and independents at a meeting in Istanbul on Saturday.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the group called on opposition activists inside Syria to elect another 50 board members, with plans to eventually form a transitional government.

In a separate development, authorities detained the leading opposition figure, Ali Abdullah, after a raid on his home Sunday in the Damascus suburb of Qatana. The 61-one-year old dissident was released in May as part of a government amnesty after spending four years in prison for supporting calls for democratic reforms.

Also Sunday, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 30 people were killed in the past 24 hours in the central city of Homs when clashes broke out between pro- and anti-government supporters.