Image: Syrian soldiers stand guard on the border with Lebanon.
Bilal Hussein  /  AP
Syrian soldiers stand on their country's side of the border with Lebanon on Monday. Syrian official and witnesses say Damascus is planting landmines along parts of its border with Lebanon.
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updated 11/1/2011 1:57:02 PM ET 2011-11-01T17:57:02

Syria has planted land mines along parts of its border with Lebanon, further sealing itself off from the world and showing just how deeply shaken Bashar Assad's regime has become since an uprising began nearly eight months ago.

Although Assad's hold on power is firm, the 46-year-old eye doctor is taking increasingly desperate measures to safeguard his grip on the country of 22 million people at the heart of the Arab world. A Syrian official confirmed to The Associated Press that troops were laying the mines, saying they were aimed at stopping weapons smuggling into the country during the uprising.

"Syria has undertaken many measures to control the borders, including planting mines," a Syrian official familiar with government strategy told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Witnesses on the Lebanese side also told the AP they have seen Syrian soldiers planting the mines in recent days.

Story: Syria's Assad warns of 'earthquake' if West intervenes

But the verdant mountains and hills along the frontier are used by refugees fleeing Syria's deadly military assault on protesters and by Syrians who have jobs and families on the Lebanese side. The decision to plant mines — terrifying weapons that often maim their victims if they don't kill them — suggests the regime is trying to contain a crisis that is spinning out of its control.

The mines also are the latest sign that Syria is working to prevent Lebanon from becoming a safe haven for the Syrian opposition as the uprising continues and the death toll mounts. The U.N. says about 3,000 people have been killed by security forces since March.

Video: Inside Syria: Underground network of cyber activists keeps revolution alive (on this page)

A Syrian man whose foot had to be amputated after he stepped on a mine just across from the Lebanese village of Irsal on Sunday was the first known victim of the mines, according to a doctor at a hospital in Lebanon where the man was treated. The doctor asked that his name not be published out of fear of repercussions because of the sensitivity of the case.

Vali Nasr, a Middle East expert and former State Department official in the Obama administration, also said the mining shows Assad is taking every measure to choke off opposition to his family's 40-year dynasty.

"Mining the borders is a way of tightening the noose. It cuts off flow of people both ways, and is also a warning to neighbors not to interfere," Nasr told the AP.

He said the move also betrays fears that countries may want to move beyond the economic sanctions already in place to send support to the opposition by land.

"The next step after sanctions could be more active material support for the opposition which would have to come over the borders," Nasr said.

Assad already has warned world powers — fresh from their victory over Moammar Gadhafi in Libya — that the entire Middle East will go up in flames if there is any foreign intervention in his country. Assad regularly plays on fears that he is a bulwark against regional turmoil, sectarian violence and Islamic extremism.

Syria is indeed a regional nexus, bordering five countries with which it shares religious and ethnic minorities and in the case of Israel, a fragile truce that is key to regional stability.

Syria's web of alliances also extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy.

But the regime's crackdown has resulted in the most severe international condemnation the Assad dynasty has seen in decades. Sanctions from the European Union and the U.S. are chipping away at the ailing economy and many leaders have called on Assad to step down. Turkey, until recently an ally, has opened its borders to anti-Assad activists and breakaway military rebels.

The 22-nation Arab League has been trying to help end the bloodshed, and Syria's state-run news agency said late Tuesday that Damascus had agreed to the league's plan on the crisis. There were no details on what the plan entailed. But an official announcement was expected Wednesday at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo.

There was no immediate sign of Syria mining the Jordanian, Iraqi or Turkish borders, although most of Turkey's 545-mile (880-kilometer) frontier with Syria already has been heavily mined since 1950s.

Syria and Lebanon share a 230-mile (365-kilometer) border, although it appears the land mines have been planted in two main areas in and around the restive province of Homs, which has endured some of the worst bloodshed. The mines have been seen in Homs province just across the border from Serhaniyeh, Lebanon, and in the Baalbek region bordering Homs and the Damascus countryside.

Homs has seen violent clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors — a real concern for a regime that counts on the loyalty of its armed forces. Some 20 soldiers were reported killed over the weekend in Homs. The border villages also are inhabited mostly Sunni Muslims. Syria is predominantly Sunni, although Assad and the ruling elite belong to the tiny Alawite sect.

Three residents of the Lebanese border village of Serhaniyeh showed an AP reporter a long sand dune barrier on the frontier where they said Syrian troops laid mines. Ahmed Diab said several trucks carrying about a 100 soldiers arrived Thursday and spent the entire day planting mines on the side of the barriers that faces toward Lebanon.

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"Since they planted the mines, no one dares to go to the border line," Diab said as he sat on his motorcycle near his home that overlooks parts of Homs province.

Many Syrians cross the border into Lebanon regularly, including some 5,000 who have fled to Lebanon since the crisis began in March. Some of them are dissidents who feels a relative sense of security in Lebanon — but that might be changing. There have been at least three cases this year of Syrian dissidents being snatched off the streets in Lebanon and spirited back across the border, Lebanese police say.

The abductions have raised alarm among some in Lebanon that members of the country's security forces are helping Assad's regime in its crackdown on anti-government protesters, effectively extending it into Lebanon.

Syria had direct control over Lebanon for nearly 30 years before pulling out its troops in 2005 under local and international pressure. But Damascus still has great influence, and pro-Syrian factions led by the militant group Hezbollah dominate the government in Beirut.

There also have been reports of Syrian troops crossing into Lebanon to pursue dissidents. In September, the Lebanese army said Syrian soldiers briefly crossed the frontier and opened fire at people trying to flee the violence in Syria.

A senior Lebanese security official confirmed that Syrian troops are planting mines on the Syrian side of the border, but said Beirut will not interfere with actions on Syrian territory.

___

Associated Press writers Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Inside Syria: Underground network of cyber activists keeps revolution alive

  1. Transcript of: Inside Syria: Underground network of cyber activists keeps revolution alive

    BRIAN WILLIAMS: As the Arab Spring we witnessed quickly turns into winter, the Middle East is littered with deposed dictators, dead and alive. Now all eyes are on Syria and President Assad , who remains defiant and in power for now. He has killed thousands trying to crush the rebellion, and he's tried mightily hard to hide the killing and the torture by keeping Western journalists out of there. But our own chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel got in at great risk to tell the story of the ongoing revolution inside Syria .

    RICHARD ENGEL reporting: It's the Arab Spring 's most stubborn revolution, and it's kept alive by graphic videos like these recorded in secret in Syria . The Syrian regime has kept most foreign journalists out, but it can't keep the videos in. We set out to find out why by going into Syria . We contact smugglers in southern Turkey . Usually they traffic cigarettes across the border into Syria . This time we will be their cargo. Suspecting we may be police, they swap us day and night from car to car to gauge how we react. Not surprisingly the smugglers are very, very cautious, but finally they do seem convinced we are who we say we are and haven't been followed. The group takes us to a safe house on the Turkish side of the border. We wait here for the moment to cross into Syria . We're told we'll go at night and wait three days. But when we think we're driving to yet another safe house ...

    Are we crossing now? They suddenly drop us off on the side of the road ...

    Unidentified Man #1: Go, go, go.

    ENGEL: ...and tell us that this field is the way in. It's 3 in the afternoon, broad daylight. I didn't expect we'd be crossing during the day. So without visas, without permission, we start to cross into Syria . The border runs right through these fields. We pause frequently as our guide, a smuggler, calls spotters to learn if watchtowers are occupied and for the location of armed Syrian border guards . Next, we must leave the relative protection of the tall grass and run through an open field . Once we cross the barbed wire fence, we're inside Syria . The stakes are now much higher. If we're caught, as Americans we 'll likely be accused of spying. This is the part where we are the most exposed. It's open land all around us. We've stopped in this tiny little ditch waiting for the sign that we can go forward. A car is supposed to be waiting for us on the Syrian side. We are now inside Syria and just waiting by the side of the road for our contact to pick us up. It's a terrible wait, obvious foreigners by a roadside. Finally our contacts arrive. They take us to a safe house in a small Syrian city. It's a brothel in a basement apartment full of beer bottles, mattresses and a mirrored bed. Home for the next three days. The uprising began last March in the southern city of Dara 'a. There a group of students was jailed, some as young as 11, for writing 'The people want to topple the regime' on a wall of their school. But when one of the boys was eventually released, he looked like this. Witnesses say security forces branded his face with hot knives. Protests erupted first in the student's hometown and then nationwide. President Bashar al-Assad responded with tanks, troops firing on protesters and mass arrests.

    In our Syrian safe house , I speak with Gwan Yousif a human rights lawyer. He lives in hiding and asked we not show his face.

    Mr. GWAN YOUSIF:

    ENGEL: He says, 'I'd like to say to the American people , the same way you like freedom and democracy and to live in security, we are not different. We are human beings.' We drive to a nearby apartment to meet more activists, moving quickly -- he says there's some security up ahead as well -- to avoid being seen. A law student tells me many female demonstrators are raped by security forces . A journalism student shows me the laptop he uses to transmit videos . He works with a team of 10 other videographers who record demonstrations with cameras hidden in their clothing, and they are always aware that their videos could be used against them.

    Unidentified Man #2:

    ENGEL: He says, 'We deliberately film crowds from a distance so individuals can't be recognized or arrested.' Activists say they also use encryption software provided by the US State Department that prevents the Syrian government from tracking the video source. After the student sends his videos , he immediately erases the hard drive. We leave Syria back through the fields and return to Turkey .

    Man #1: Go, go, go, go, just go.

    ENGEL: In Istanbul , the Ottoman capital on the Bosphorus , we meet Omar al - Mokdad . He's the other half of the opposition. He distributes the videos recorded in Syria to the world. The 31-year-old began opposing the Syrian government while he was still in college. Al- Mokdad says he founded three unlicensed newspapers in Damascus . All were shut down by the government .

    Mr. OMAR AL-MOKDAD: We didn't make any crimes. We were just trying to follow our freedom.

    ENGEL: He says he was arrested seven times. In prison, al-Mokdad says the guards told him if he stopped writing they'd go easy on him.

    Mr. AL-MOKDAD: And they said, 'Will you -- will you continue writing this nonsense?' I say, 'If I see something wrong, I will write about it. I will not be silenced.' They say -- then they say in cold-blooded way, 'OK, cool. We will help you to stop writing.' They put my hand to the table, and they broke it.

    ENGEL: They said, 'We'll help you stop writing,' smash.

    Mr. AL-MOKDAD: And they broke my hand.

    ENGEL: Since fleeing Syria last spring, al-Mokdad has helped post more 2,500 videos . Why did Tunisia fall, Egypt fell, Gadhafi 's regime fell, but Syria hasn't? Why not?

    Mr. AL-MOKDAD: Because we have a problem with the army. The army's still under their control. Forty-one years, they put all the country under their control.

    ENGEL: The Syrian government declined to speak to us, but claims the demonstrators are armed gangs and terrorists who have killed hundreds of Syrian security forces . How do you see this developing?

    Mr. AL-MOKDAD: The people are determined to take the regime out.

    ENGEL: And their most powerful weapons are laptops and cell phones.

    WILLIAMS: We're always happy to see you back. You were briefly insanely exposed during this story. Back up, one little thing, to this State Department software, how does that happen?

    ENGEL: Yeah, the State Department helps these activists communicate without being detected by the Syrian government . About 200 activists have been killed for transmitting videos , and this is part of the State Department 's initiative to give them some degree of protection. The US has said there will be no military intervention, nothing like what happened in Libya , but they're helping in ways they can.

    WILLIAMS: Hard to believe, February of this year, you and I are walking through Tahrir Square and, you know, you're looking at Cairo , a city where you moved as a young college graduate to learn Arabic. Mubarak gone, Gadhafi gone, Assad very nervous.

    ENGEL: Assad is very nervous, especially after Gadhafi was killed. The stakes are suddenly much higher. He saw that, unless he wins and crushes this revolt, Assad could end up becoming killed. It has also encouraged the demonstrators because they saw that someone like Gadhafi himself could be brought down. So the stakes are higher for both sides.

    WILLIAMS: Always good to see you, especially after this trip.

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