msnbc.com news services
updated 11/24/2011 6:52:59 AM ET 2011-11-24T11:52:59

Syrian tanks bombarded hideouts of army defectors near the central town of Rastan on Thursday, a resident and activists said, two months after the authorities said they had regained control of the important region.

Activists said around 50 tanks and armored vehicles fired anti-aircraft guns and machine guns into farmland on the edge of Rastan, 12 miles north of the restive city of Homs.

The town was the scene at the end of October of the first major fighting between troops loyal to President Bashar Assad and army defectors in the eight-month uprising against his rule.

"The shelling is concentrating on Rastan's western farms," said a resident of the town, who gave his name as Abu Salah. "I have called several people who live there and loyalist officers answered their mobile phones instead. They were either killed or arrested."

Thousands of soldiers have bolted from the regular army since it started cracking down on an the eight-month popular protest movement to remove Assad. They have formed armed units loosely linked to the umbrella "Free Syrian Army", led by officers now hiding in neighboring Turkey.

Story: 5 children among 23 civilians killed in Syria, rights group says

Meanwhile, France has called for a "secured zone to protect civilians" in Syria, the first time a major Western power has suggested international intervention on the ground during the uprising.

'Legitimate partner'
Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also described Syria's exiled opposition National Council as "the legitimate partner with which we want to work", the biggest international endorsement yet for the nascent opposition body.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU was ready to engage with the Syrian National Council (SNC) and other opposition groups, but stressed the need for them to maintain a peaceful, non-sectarian approach.

Asked at a news conference on Wednesday after meeting the SNC president if a humanitarian corridor was an option for Syria, Juppe ruled out military intervention to create a "buffer zone" in northern Syria but suggested a "secured zone" may be feasible to protect civilians and ferry in humanitarian aid.

"If it is possible to have a humanitarian dimension for a secured zone to protect civilians, that then is a question which has to be studied by the European Union on the one side and the Arab League on the other side," Juppe said.

Story: Army defectors threaten to transform Syrian uprising into civil war

Further details of the proposal were not immediately available. Until now, Western countries have imposed economic sanctions on Syria but have shown no appetite for intervention on the ground in the country, which sits on the fault lines of the ethnic and sectarian conflicts across the Middle East.

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus has urged its citizens in Syria to depart "immediately."

Nearly 4,000 people have been reported killed in the military crackdown on the popular uprising since March.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to his report.

Video: Start of a civil war in Syria?

  1. Closed captioning of: Start of a civil war in Syria?

    >>> amateur video out of syria shows what may be the start of a civil war . a growing number of defectors taking up arms against government troops and tanks. we should note msnbc has not been able to independently verify this video. richard engel is the chief foreign correspondent and is live in istanbul. we know part of this started with the arab league meeting in moroc morocco, but what dynamic are you hearing from your sources now?

    >> reporter: we're seeing two very different dynamics, but both of them have the same objectives to pressure syria and pressure the regime of bashar al assad , much more pressure coming from the arab league , tluding the three-day deadline to allow international observers including journalists in that they don't allow the observers to go in, they will face more sanctions. syria would have to stop the violence , no indication that syria has any intention in either allowing the observers or stopping the violence. that's diplomatically. on the ground we're watching the rea emergence of the free syrian army . it is a group of defectors, how big it is is unclear. according to members of the free army we've spoken to, they say they have a source of 15,000, who let the formal security forces of syrian government and join this rebel army, now the regime itself dismisses that number, the 15 to 20,000 as wildly inflated. what cannot be denied, however, is that this rebel group is starting to take military action . it has some relatively sophisticated weapon and been able to destroy several tanks, how many we don't know. but at least four according to multiple sources inside syria . it is a different dynamic and it's unclear and if this is really a tipping point people are now starting to take wagers on how long the government in syria will last. according to who we've been speaking to they think weeks to month but it's hard to know.

    >> the arab league had second thoughts and offered to send military and diplomatic observers to syria to give them a second chance to comply. i don't know where that stands right now and whether there's any indication that the asatd re rejet stream r rejet strer rejet strer regeem is going to work with --

    >> in you remember libya, gadhafi said, of course libya is abiding by the cease fire and we accept the terms of the cease fire and on the ground people were being shot and the libyan army was attacking. syria is taking a similar position, maintaining that it wants the arab league peace initiative and that it is abiding about the peace initiative. state television is broadcasting to the syrian people that the troops are being pulled back from syrian cities but that's not the case. the syrian military is still continuing to carry out offensive operations and now sometimes defensive operations as this free syrian army is going on the offensive.

    >> it just seems as though -- tofr the arab league suspending syria , which has been such a major player in the arab league all of these years and to have them having second thoughts about taking that tough stance and assad, you don't know whether he's cornered or this thing will end up being civil war . richard engel , extraordinary story.

    >> go ahead.

    >> reporter: there are deep concerns about the civil -- possibility of a real civil other sectarian war in this area. maybe even exacerbating them, but you have to look at the dynamic in syria . you have a shiite government, only maybe 10 to 15% of the population being members of the shiite community and almost all of the opposition forces are members of the sunni majority. it's the exact flip side of what we saw in iraq, where you had a sunni government and shiite society. there are deep concerns. if the regime goes and it goes suddenly, what will replace it.

    >> richard engel , thank you very much. thanks for the report

Data: Young and restless: Demographics fuel Mideast protests

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