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Showdown looms at Syrian border town

BEIRUT -- A border region with a history of hostility toward the Syrian regime is posing the biggest challenge yet for President Bashar Assad's struggle to crush the revolt against his family's 40-year-rule.

Analysts say Assad will do anything to restore control in the restive northern area bordering Turkey, where mutinous forces are giving a largely peaceful revolt new strength -- and firepower.

Saturday, thousands of elite troops and tanks believed to be led by his brother sealed off the entrances to the mostly deserted town of Jisr al-Shughour, with soldiers loyal to the regime coming under sniper fire as they approached.

Mutinous Syrian soldiers and police officers remained behind to fight against an expected all-out government assault, a resident said, and unarmed demonstrators were ready to fight "with their hands" in the town just 12 miles from the Turkish border.

Syrian troops backed by tanks, helicopters and heavy armor have been in the area for several days; it was not clear why the army was delaying an assault. Ausama Monajed, a London-based Syrian activist, said the Assads could be worried not just about army defections, but any hesitation to obey shoot-on-sight orders. Human rights groups say more than 1,400 people nationwide have died in the government crackdown since the uprising erupted in southern Syria in mid-March.

"The Assads are reshuffling the army and creating a number of mainly Alawite units made up specifically of people who have been tested and have shown themselves to be hard-core loyalists," he said.

Jisr al-Shughour is a predominantly Sunni town with some Alawite and Christian villages nearby in Idlib province. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

Jamil Saeb, an activist from the town who was reached by phone, said several army deserters and officers were still there and have vowed to protect unarmed residents.

The White House said the offensive in the north has created a humanitarian crisis and it called on the government to stop the violence and allow the International Committee of the Red Cross free access to the area.

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