Assad forces fight deserters at northwestern town

AMMAN Tue Oct 25, 2011 6:25pm IST

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AMMAN (Reuters) - Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fought army deserters on Tuesday at a roadblock on the edge of the northwestern town of Maarat al-Numaan, residents and activists said.

Maarat al-Numaan, is sheltering soldiers who defected during a military assault in the central province of Homs -- one of the largest offensives against a seven-month-old popular uprising and a nascent armed insurgency.

"A firefight broke out in the early afternoon at the large barrier which is manned by soldiers and military intelligence personnel. Tanks are also deployed there," a local resident, who gave his name as Raed, said by telephone.

He said the roadblock was attacked in response to a military operation overnight against defectors sheltering around a chicken factory at the outskirts of Maarat al-Numaan.

The town is located in an agricultural area on the main northern highway, 100 km (60 miles) north of the city of Homs and 70 km from Syria's main commercial hub of Aleppo.

Maarat al-Numaan, a key town in the Roman and Islamic era, was a hotbed of resistance to Assad's father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, in the 1980s when his forces crushed Islamist and leftist challenges to his rule, killing tens of thousands.

(Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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