AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian tanks shelled a hill region in the northwestern province of Idlib, residents and activists said on Tuesday, in a widening military assault to suppress protests in rural regions that have already driven thousands of refugees to Turkey.
The assault came a day after the authorities announced they would invite opponents to July 10 talks to set a framework for a dialogue promised by President Bashar al-Assad.
Opposition leaders have dismissed the offer, saying it is not credible while mass killings and arrests continue as part of a move crush a three month uprising against Assad's autocratic rule.
Syrian authorities say more than 250 soldiers and police have died in clashes they say were provoked by militant groups.
"I can hear heavy explosions 20 km to the north, around the villages of Rama and Orum al-Joz. My relatives there say the shelling is random," said a resident of Kin Safra village in Jabal al-Zawya region, west of the main highway linking the cities of Hama and Aleppo.
Opposition figure Ammar al-Qarabi, head of the Syrian National Organisation for Human Rights said the shelling appeared in preparation for storming Jabal al-Zawya, a region of several villages 35 km south of Turkey that has been witnessing spreading protests against Assad's 11 year rule.
"Jabal al-Zawya was one of the first regions in Syria where people took to street demanding the downfall of the regime. The military attacks have now reached them and they will likely result in more killings and in more refugees to Turkey," Qarabi, who is from Idlib, told Reuters by phone from Cairo.
Sawasiah, another Syrian rights organization headed by lawyer Mohannad al-Hassani, said a security campaign that has resulted in the arrest of more than 12,000 people across Syria since the uprising erupted in March, has intensified in the last few days.
A statement by Sawasiah said security forces arrested on Tuesday Farhad Khader Ayou, an official in the Kurdish Mustaqbal party, in the eastern province of Hasaka on Tuesday.
The statement said 17 people in the province of Raqqa to the west were arrested in the last 48 hours, adding to hundreds of people arbitrarily arrested across the country this week.
(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Editing by Matthew Jones)