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Syrian forces make mass arrests

Syrian security forces have made sweeping arrests, randomly detaining males above the age of 16 in a north-western province, it has been reported.

Human rights activist Mustafa Osso said the arrests were mainly concentrated in the Jisr al-Shughour area, the town of Maaret al-Numan and nearby villages, where the army has been massing troops for days.

Mr Osso added that troops opened fire early on Thursday in the outskirts of Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000 on the road linking Damascus with Syria's second-largest city, Aleppo. No casualties were reported.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said dozens of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and buses used to transport anti-terrorism forces were deploying around the town of Khan Sheikhon south of Maaret al-Numan. Residents were fleeing the town.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has unleashed the military to crush a popular uprising against his authoritarian rule. Human rights activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed since mid-March. Mr Osso said the number of people detained daily in the area is at least 300.

Syria's state-run news agency said Assad expressed confidence that "Syrians will get out of this crisis stronger and more coherent."

The Syrian government blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists - not true reform-seekers - are behind it.

The government has denied there are any cracks in the military amid rumours that Sunni army conscripts are refusing to fire on civilians. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni.

Turkish reports said a lieutenant colonel and four privates deserted the Syrian army and fled to Turkey late on Wednesday. They would be joining a number of civil servants as well as other soldiers and police officers who are already sheltering in the refugee camps.

Nearly 9,000 people have sought refuge in Turkey, according to Turkish authorities.

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