Government troops firing machine guns mounted on tanks stormed a rebellious town in central Syria before dawn Tuesday as part of military operations aimed at crushing the six-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad, activists said.

The offensive in Rastan, located just north of the central city of Homs and on the highway to Turkey, began overnight and continued through the morning, leaving at least 20 people wounded, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Rastan has emerged as a hotbed of dissent against Assad's autocratic regime during the revolt, and alleged army deserters have frequently clashed with security forces there in the past.

A video posted by activists online purportedly shows a captain in the Syrian army, flanked by several of his comrades, announcing his defection.

"We promise them that the town of Rastan will be their graveyard," says the captain, Youssef Hammoud, on camera. "We promise them big surprises," he warns Assad's army.

The Local Coordination Committees activist network, the Observatory, and other groups reported Tuesday's attacks in Rastan. They said the tanks and armored vehicles entered Rastan early Tuesday and dozens of troops have deployed on the town's streets.

The observatory also reported security operations in the northwestern region of Jabal al-Zawiya saying at least two people were killed. Security and armed forces have been conducting operations in the region near the Turkish border for weeks.

The group later said six people were killed in the central city of Homs where army is conducting an operation. It added that a tank and another military vehicle were damaged in the city's Bayada neighborhood after they were attacked by army defectors.

The United Nations estimates that more than 2,700 civilians have been killed in the government's crackdown on the uprising that began in mid-March, inspired by the Arab revolutions that have toppled autocratic rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

The crackdown has prompted the international community, including the United States and European nations, to impose stiff sanctions on the regime.

Assad insists the unrest is being driven by terrorists and Islamic extremists acting out a foreign conspiracy to fracture Syria.

Ignoring the mounting death toll from his government's bloody crackdown, Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told the United Nations Monday that external critics were to blame for the violence and for causing delays in Assad's plans for democratic reforms.

In a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, he sought to paint the Assad regime as having been on the brink of wide-ranging democratic reforms when foreign-inspired religious radicals and armed groups forced the Assad regime to put down the rebellion to hold the country together.

Al-Moallem said reforms "had to take a back seat to other priorities. Our overriding priority was facing the external pressures which were at times tantamount to blatant conspiracies."

The longtime foreign minister said that internal desires for reform "have been manipulated to future objectives which are alien to the interests and express desires of the Syrian people.


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