By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed four villagers Wednesday in a northwestern region near Turkey, rights campaigners said, in an expansion of a military campaign to crush dissent against President Bashar al-Assad.
The four were killed in tank-backed assaults on at least four villages in the Jabal al-Zawya region in Idlib province near the border with Turkey, an activist in Idlib and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Assad, from Syria's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Islam, is struggling to put down widening demonstrations in outlying rural and tribal regions, in suburbs of the capital and in cities such as Hama and Homs demanding an end to his autoratic rule.
Mass arrests and heavy deployment of security forces, including an irregular Alawite militia, known as shabbiha, have prevented demonstrations in central neighborhoods of Damascus and in the commercial hub of Aleppo.
Military assaults on towns and villages in Idlib began five weeks ago after large demonstrations across the rural province demanding political freedoms, forcing thousands of refugees to flee to Turkey.
"We are seeing a military escalation following the regime's political escalation," the activist in Idlib who declined to be named for fear of arrest told Reuters by phone.
He was referring to the arbitrary arrests of thousands of Syrians that intensified in the last two weeks, according to human rights campaigners, despite the authorities convening what they described as a "national dialogue" conference composed mostly of Assad supporters. Assad loyalists also attacked the U.S. and French embassies in Damascus.
Syrian security forces arrested at least 30 people, including an actress and a writer, during a pro-democracy protest in Damascus Wednesday, the Observatory said.
This month, singer Ibrahim Qashou was found dead in the Orontes river in Hama with his throat slit, residents said, after he composed a song titled "Assad leave," which was repeated by hundreds of thousands of protesters in the city.
The attack recalled assassinations of Assad family critics in the 1980s inside and outside Syria. The body of Lebanese journalist Selim al-Lawzi was found with his hand dipped in acid in Lebanon.
International powers, including Turkey, have cautioned Assad against a repeat of massacres from the era his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, brutally crushed leftists and Islamist challenges to his rule.
The U.S. and French ambassadors visited Hama in a show of support Friday. Three days later their embassies were attacked by Assad loyalists. No one was killed in the attacks which were condemned by the United Nations Security Council.
The attacks also drew sharp responses from Washington and Paris, which had led a European drive to rehabilitate Assad internationally in return for stabilizing Lebanon.
President Barack Obama said Tuesday that Assad had "lost legitimacy" for failing to lead a democratic transition, but stopped short of explicitly calling on him to step down.
In the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, two explosions hit two minor gas pipelines, residents said. The official state news agency said a pipeline had caught fire due to either dry weather conditions or a leakage in the line.
The growing numbers of protesters have breathed new life into Syria's once decimated opposition. A meeting of Syrian opposition in Istanbul ended Wednesday with a call for the army to protect its people and side with the protesters.
Attended largely by exiled dissidents, the gathering will be followed by another in Istanbul Saturday, which the organizers hope to twin through video-link with a "National Salvation" conference planned by opposition in Damascus.
Among the participants was an old man who had been a symbol of resistance to Assad's father almost half a century ago. Barely able to walk without assistance, former leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood Issam al-Attar declared Assad's government to be a dying regime.
(Additional reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore in Istanbul, Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in Beirut)