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SYRIA: Forces attack central city as President Bashar Assad promises amnesty for protesters

May 31, 2011 | 11:05 am

The brutal face-off between anti-regime protesters and security forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad continued for a 10th week Tuesday as tanks pummeled the central governorate of Homs with mortars. 

Rastan, the largest town in Homs, with a population of about 80,000, has been the scene of a bloody offensive carried out by the military's 4th Armored Division. According to activists based in Syria, plainclothes security officers descended from three helicopters to the rooftop of Basel Hospital, where they established sniper positions and shot at residents. 

Rastan residents reported seeing security personnel disguised as bearded men dressed in black lurking on roofs, shooting and killing several soldiers in an effort to spark clashes between the army and protesters. The residents said they also saw several soldiers who defected, unwilling to attack protesters, and were subsequently shot at by security forces.

The accounts could not be independently verified due to the Syrian government's media blockade.

The Al Jazeera satellite network reported three casualties in Rastan on Tuesday.

According to Radwan Ziadeh, an activist and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights studies, anti-government protesters were not likely to be deterred by the artillery attack on Rastan.

"Extreme violence will not stop demonstrators," she said. "They are dying to topple the regime."

In an effort to combat Syrian state media, which has largely dismissed protesters as terrorists and thugs, some Rastan residents on Tuesday afternoon posted a statement on Facebook emphasizing that the "monstrous bombardment and arbitrary gunfire used against our city is a clear response to our peaceful demonstrations last week."

"We have never taken up arms against anyone," the statement said. 

According to the statement, Lt. Bassam Mahmoud Tlas, who had fled to nearby Talbiseh in a taxi because he was unwilling to carry out the crackdown in Rastan, was killed by security personnel as soon as he reached a Rastan checkpoint late Monday.

The Syrian Arab News Agency, SANA, claimed that Tlas was killed by "armed terrorist groups."

Assad is expected to deliver a speech in the next few days announcing plans to release political prisoners and reform the government in exchange for an end to demonstrations. 

According to SANA (link in Arabic), Assad issued a decree late Tuesday "granting amnesty for all crimes committed before the 31st of May."

But after weeks of brutal crackdowns and arbitrary arrests, protesters remained skeptical. 

"We know there will be no fundamental change, and the people are not willing to compromise," Ziadeh said 

-- Roula Hajjar in Beirut