BEIRUT - Residents used automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades to repel advancing government troops in central Syria yesterday, putting up a fierce fight for the first time in their 2-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad's autocratic regime.
The escalation raised fears that the popular uprising may be moving toward a Libya-style armed conflict.
Until now, the opposition against Assad has taken the form of peaceful protests by unarmed demonstrators, though authorities have claimed, without offering solid proof, that it was being led by armed gangs and propelled by foreign conspiracies.
Activists said residents of the towns of Talbiseh and Rastan, which have been under attack since Sunday in central Homs province, decided to fight back with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and at least four civilians were killed.
"They felt that they cannot sit back anymore and pray for God to help them," said one Homs resident who has wide connections in the province. He, like all residents contacted by the Associated Press, spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Two more bodies were found early yesterday in the area of Bab Amro cemetery, raising the death toll from the two-day crackdown in the country's turbulent heartland to 15, said the Local Coordination Committees in Syria, which helps organize and document the protests. State media said four soldiers were killed.
Yesterday's accounts were the first credible reports of serious resistance by residents taking up arms. It is not clear how widespread such resistance might be elsewhere, though there have been some reports of civilians fighting back in the town of Talkalakh near the border with Lebanon, and the government and several rights group say more than 150 soldiers and policemen have been killed since the unrest began.
Details coming out of Syria are sketchy because the government has placed severe restrictions on the media and expelled foreign reporters.
There were these developments in the Arab world yesterday:
_ Yemeni warplanes carried out airstrikes on a southern town seized by hundreds of Islamic militants over the weekend as the political crisis surrounding the embattled president descended into more bloodshed. Military units loyal to him mounted a fierce assault on the southern city of Taiz, which has been a hotbed of anti-government protests since the start of the uprising in early February. A doctor at a field hospital set up in the city's main protest camp said at least 20 demonstrators were killed. President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has clung to power despite months of daily protests, defections by key allies and international pressure to go, has repeatedly warned that Islamic militants and al Qaeda would seize control of the country if he steps down. At the same time, he has intensified a crackdown on protesters.
_ Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi is ready for a truce to stop the fighting in his country, the visiting South African president says after meeting the Libyan ruler, but he lists familiar Gadhafi conditions that have scuttled previous cease-fire efforts. The South African president, Jacob Zuma, says Gadhafi is ready to accept an African Union initiative for a cease-fire that would stop all hostilities, including NATO airstrikes in support of rebel forces. He does not say Gadhafi is ready to step down, which is the central demand of the rebels. Five Libyan army generals who defected from Gadhafi's regime are appealing to fellow officers to join them in backing the rebels.