Middle East

Syria unrest: Tanks storm restive town of Rastan

Undated image from amateur purporting to show anti-government protesters in Rastan, Syria
Image caption Rastan has seen mass protests against Bashar al-Assad's regime in recent weeks

Syrian troops firing machine-guns and backed by tanks have stormed the restive central town of Rastan, activists say.

The tanks and other armoured vehicles entered Rastan early on Tuesday after besieging it for two days, they said.

The town is strategically important, lying on a major road to Turkey and close to the city of Homs.

The move comes as Syrian authorities continue efforts to suppress protests that began six months ago.

More than 2,700 people have been killed in the crackdown, according to a UN tally.

The Syrian government has blamed recent violence on "armed gangs" and foreign meddling.

A resident of Rastan told the BBC that defected soldiers were fighting government forces within the city.

"We have around 20 officers and a few hundred soldiers with them," the resident said.

"Those guys are spread throughout the city - they are trying to help the civilians and protect people from random shooting and random gunfire."

There were unconfirmed reports of casualties.

Events from Syria are hard to verify as international journalists have been largely prevented from reporting there.

Defectors 'shot'

In recent days, Syrian security forces have been engaged in their latest concerted effort to quell opposition to Bashar al-Assad's regime in and around Homs - an area that has seen frequent mass protests.

A resident of Rastan who called himself Abu Qassem told Reuters news agency: "Tanks closed in on Rastan overnight and the sound of machine guns and explosions has been non-stop. They finally entered this morning."

Protests and crackdowns have been reported across the country.

The BBC's Owen Bennett Jones reports from neighbouring Lebanon that there are growing signs some activists believe peaceful protests will not be enough to bring down the government and that they need to use more force.

Activists said that on Monday, troops shot dead four soldiers trying to desert in the north-western province of Idlib.

The BBC's Lyse Doucet, who gained rare access to report from Damascus this week, says Mr Assad still has some support there.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionMoualem: ''What purpose could this serve other than total chaos that would dismember Syria?''

But she says the brutal crackdown against protests in the suburbs and in cites and villages outside Damascus is diminishing that support base.

Syria's foreign minister told the UN on Monday that the West was trying to create "total chaos" in order to break up Syria.

The EU and the US have both imposed sanctions on Syria's regime. The US has urged the UN Security Council to also impose sanctions.

Meanwhile, computer hackers replaced the home pages of the official websites of a number of Syrian cities with caricatures of President Assad, instructions on how to evade government controls and data on those killed in the crackdown.

Members of the hacking group Anonymous said they were behind the attacks.

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