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Syrian forces surround border town

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Syrian forces surround border town
Syrian anti-government protesters demonstrate May 6, 2011, in Nawa. Nawa. UPI | License Photo

ALBOKAMAL, Syria, July 18 (UPI) -- Syrian security forces were poised to begin a major military operation to quash dissent in an eastern town where dozens of soldiers defected, residents said.

At least 1,000 troops, some backed by tanks, surrounded Albokamal, near the Iraqi border Monday in an "explosive" situation, the pro-government private daily newspaper al-Watan reported.

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The army was "preparing to intervene," the newspaper said, but Syrian authorities feared fierce resistance among insurgents who could "easily find logistical and political support."

Until now, the military largely stayed out of Albokamal and Deir el-Zour, a city of more than 500,000 on the Euphrates River, also near Iraq, out of fear its presence could ignite tribal anger against the government, The New York Times reported.

The tribes wield great influence and have relations with tribes in Iraq, the Times said.

"I expect the regime to send more troops to seize the city and punish those soldiers who defected," an Albokamal resident who arrived in Damascus Sunday told the U.S. newspaper. "It will be a big mistake to let the army enter our city."

The troops arrived a day after security forces and armed plainclothes men killed five protesters in Albokamal, including a 14-year-old boy.

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The killings brought thousands of angry residents into the streets, overwhelming the security forces, the Times said, and video posted on YouTube indicated.

Residents of Hama told the BBC Monday that 50 protesters arrested recently have been freed and government offices have reopened.

The city has been under opposition control since the security forces withdrew in June. Activists have lifted their checkpoints and let businesses reopen in return for a halt to raids.

In Homs, sectarian violence was reported over the weekend.

The Observatory for Human Rights told the BBC a pro-regime militia attacked a Sunni Muslim neighborhood, killing 30 people, after the mutilated corpses of three Alawites, members of President Bashar aAssad's sect, were found.

Human rights activists say at least 1,400 protesters were killed in the Assad regime's crackdown on dissent since March and more than 12,000 people were still detained, most without being charged.

The government disputes death toll and blames the unrest on Islamist extremists, accusing them of killing hundreds of soldiers and other security forces.

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