BEIRUT: The Syrian army on Thursday sent further troop reinforcements to the northwestern province of Idlib, where activists said they fear an assault similar to the one that devastated the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the troop buildup appeared to indicate a major military operation was imminent given reports in the official press of "armed terrorist groups" in the region.
Milad Fadl, a member of the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission, said tanks and troops were deploying heavily around the Jabal al-Zawiya district of the province.
"Large numbers of residents from eight villages in that area have fled," Fadl told AFP, adding that residents of the city of Idlib itself were also leaving.
"The government troops have asked members of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) to surrender their weapons through messages on mosque loudspeakers or through local officials," Fadl said.
"I expect the army to first storm Idlib and then decide from there what to do."
He said one civilian was "executed" Thursday in Jabal al-Zawiya and five homes were burned down to punish the local population for supporting the rebel fighters.
There are concerns that Idlib, a mountainous province near the Turkish border, could suffer the same fate as Baba Amr which was stormed by government troops on March 1 after a month-long blitz.
Idlib is considered strategically important because of the presence of a large number of FSA members, particularly in the Jabal al-Zawiya area.
Abdel Rahman told AFP that clashes were taking place on Thursday between security forces and rebel fighters in the Idlib village of Kfar Nabal.
On Wednesday, the opposition Syrian National Council appealed to the international community and the Arab League to act urgently at all levels to avoid any repetition of what happened in Baba Amr.