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Syrian tanks bombarded hideouts of army defectors near the central town of Rastan on Thursday, a resident and activists said, two months after the authorities said they had regained control of the important region.

Activists said around 50 tanks and armored vehicles fired anti-aircraft guns and machine guns into farmland on the edge of Rastan, 12 miles north of the restive city of Homs.

The town was the scene at the end of October of the first major fighting between troops loyal to President Bashar Assad and army defectors in the eight-month uprising against his rule.

“The shelling is concentrating on Rastan’s western farms,” said a resident of the town, who gave his name as Abu Salah. “I have called several people who live there and loyalist officers answered their mobile phones instead. They were either killed or arrested.”

Thousands of soldiers have bolted from the regular army since it started cracking down on an the eight-month popular protest movement to remove Assad. They have formed armed units loosely linked to the umbrella “Free Syrian Army”, led by officers now hiding in neighboring Turkey.

Meanwhile, France has called for a “secured zone to protect civilians” in Syria, the first time a major Western power has suggested international intervention on the ground during the uprising.

‘Legitimate partner’

Foreign Minister Alain Juppe also described Syria’s exiled opposition National Council as “the legitimate partner with which we want to work”, the biggest international endorsement yet for the nascent opposition body.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU was ready to engage with the Syrian National Council (SNC) and other opposition groups, but stressed the need for them to maintain a peaceful, non-sectarian approach.

Asked at a news conference on Wednesday after meeting the SNC president if a humanitarian corridor was an option for Syria, Juppe ruled out military intervention to create a “buffer zone” in northern Syria but suggested a “secured zone” may be feasible to protect civilians and ferry in humanitarian aid.

“If it is possible to have a humanitarian dimension for a secured zone to protect civilians, that then is a question which has to be studied by the European Union on the one side and the Arab League on the other side,” Juppe said.

Further details of the proposal were not immediately available. Until now, Western countries have imposed economic sanctions on Syria but have shown no appetite for intervention on the ground in the country, which sits on the fault lines of the ethnic and sectarian conflicts across the Middle East.

The U.S. Embassy in Damascus has urged its citizens in Syria to depart “immediately.”

Nearly 4,000 people have been reported killed in the military crackdown on the popular uprising since March.

msnbc

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