|The UN says that more than 2,700 Syrians have been killed since mid-March by forces loyal to President Assad [EPA]
Syrian forces backed by tanks and helicopters stormed into the central town of Rastan to crush army deserters who are fighting back after months of mostly peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad, residents said.
Early on Tuesday, dozens of armoured vehicles entered Rastan, a town of 40,000 on the Orontes river north of Homs, after tanks and helicopters pounded it with heavy machineguns through the hours of darkness.
"Tanks closed in on Rastan overnight and the sound of machineguns and explosions has been non-stop. They finally entered this morning," said a resident named Abu Qassem.
Reports indicate that 20 civilians were injured in the assualt. However, Al Jazeera could not immediately confirm reports of injuries due to restrictions on reporting in Syria.
Hundreds of soldiers who have defied orders to fire on protesters have formed the Khaled Bin al-Walid battalion, named after the Arab conqueror of Syria, in Rastan. The force, led by Captain Abdelrahman Sheikh, has some tanks. Colonel Riad al-Assad, the most senior military defector, is active in the area.
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Nearby in Houla, across the Orontes, thousands of villagers held an anti-Assad rally during which a new battalion of defectors was announced. Several soldiers in fatigues were seen in a YouTube video as a crowd chanted "Freedom".
To cheers, an announcer was seen in the video saying: "The Syrian Free Army declares the formation of the Ali bin Abi Taleb Battalion in Houla, Homs, under the command of First Lieutenant Colonel Fayez al-Abdallah, to be supervised by the Khaled bin al-Walid battalion ... to protect peaceful protests."
Rastan lies on the highway to Turkey near the city of Homs and is part of a region that has emerged as a centre of resistance to Assad's government.
Syria's foreign minister on Monday blamed "foreign intervention" for the country's months of violence and for causing delays in Assad's plans for democratic reforms.
In a speech to the UN General Assembly, Walid Moualem sought to paint the Assad government as having been on the brink of wide-ranging democratic reforms when "foreign-inspired religious radicals and armed groups" forced them to put down the rebellion to hold the country together.
"We deeply regret the surge in the activities of armed groups in Syria, which have not waned and instead continued to spiral," he said.
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"The presence of these groups ... is the manifestation of foreign intervention."
Moualem 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."
As Moualem addressed the world leaders in New York, the violent crackdown on anti-government protesters continued in Syria.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva has put the number of people killed in the crackdown on the uprising at more than 2,700 since March 15.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies