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Syria army warns civilians to leave Qusayr

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Syria's army has warned citizens to evacuate the town of Qusayr ahead of an attack, a military source said on Friday, but an activist denied that and said there was no safe route out.

"Leaflets were dropped over Qusayr asking civilians to leave the city, with a map of a safe route by which to evacuate, because the attack against the city is coming soon if the rebels do not surrender," the military source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Activist Hadi al-Abdullah, who spoke to AFP over the Internet, denied the claim.

"I am in the town of Qusayr, and this morning I visited two villages nearby, and I can assure you no leaflets were dropped anywhere near here," he said.

"What is more worrying than that is that there is no safe exit for civilians. All of us here in Qusayr have been condemned by the regime to a slow death," added Abdullah, a spokesman for the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of anti-regime activists.

"Every time civilians try to leave the town, they are shot or shelled at the town's edges by tanks or snipers. We are trapped -- civilians, activists and fighters together."

Troops backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah have advanced throughout the area around Qusayr, which fell to the rebels more than a year ago.

Activists said Qusayr is surrounded by government forces on three sides, and that approximately 25,000 residents are believed to still be in the city.

The area has been a strategic boon to the rebels, who used it as a base from which to block the main road from Damascus to the coast, impeding military movement and supply chains.

It is also important because of its proximity to Lebanon.

The regime has made recapturing it a key objective. President Bashar al-Assad reportedly said last month that fighting in the area was the "main battle" his troops were waging.

Activists say regime forces there are backed by fighters from Hezbollah, as well as members of the National Defence Force, a pro-regime militia.

Elsewhere in Syria on Friday, demonstrators denounced "international silence" in the face of several alleged mass killings in Syria.

The protests, after weekly Friday prayers, were intended to draw attention to the reported deaths of at least 62 people in a Sunni district of the town of Banias and an earlier mass killing in nearby Bayda, a Sunni village.

At least 50 people were found dead in the village, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

"International silence, the regime's massacres are the greatest danger to Syria," read banners held by demonstrators in central Hama.

The protests came as UN human rights chief Navi Pillay on Friday called in a statement for urgent international action to halt the bloodshed in Syria, after the reported massacres in and around Banias.

"I am appalled at the apparent killing of women, children and men in the village of Bayda, and possibly elsewhere in the Banias area, which seem to indicate a campaign targeting specific communities perceived to be supportive of the opposition," Pillay said.

Violence continued across the country, with the Observatory reporting at least 46 people killed, in a preliminary toll.

The watchdog, which relies on a network of activists, lawyers and doctors, said at least 72 people were killed throughout the country in violence on Thursday, including 33 rebels, 21 civilians and 18 soldiers.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130510/syria-army-warns-civilians-leave-qusayr