Syrians flee toward Turkey to escape military assault
GUVECCI, Turkey |
GUVECCI, Turkey (Reuters) - Hundreds of Syrians fled to Turkey on Saturday to escape a military assault to quash a three-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
Witnesses said more than 4,000 Syrians have crossed over and up to 10,000 had taken shelter among trees near the border since forces commanded by Assad's brother Maher sent tanks and troops into the northwestern province of Idlib.
They said they feared revenge attacks from security forces for violence in which Syria said 120 troops were killed but which refugees and rights campaigners said resulted from soldiers mutinying following the killings of civilians.
The United States accused the Syrian government of creating a "humanitarian crisis" and called on it to halt its offensive and allow immediate, unfettered access by the International Committee for the Red Cross to help refugees, detainees and the wounded.
Thousands streamed out of the town of Jisr al-Shughour, on the road between Syria's second city Aleppo and the country's main port of Latakia.
"When the massacre happened in Jisr al-Shughour the army split, or they started fighting each other and blamed it on us," a woman refugee, who refused to give her name, told Turkish news channel NTV.
Bassam, a tile layer, said: "Tanks are now one kilometer away from Jisr al-Shughour, near a sugar plant, and they are firing shells and machine gunning the town. There are only a few people left. I escaped on my motorcycle through dirt tracks in the hills."
He showed mobile phone camera footage of a dead young man, between 18 and 25 years old, with a bullet wound his leg, and a very large exit wound in his stomach. He lay on a bloody cloth.
Another picture showed a dead young man who had been shot in the head. He said the two were killed just outside Jisr al-Shughour by troops under the command of Maher.
He said the troops burned wheat crops in three villages near Jisr al-Shughour in a scorched earth policy to try to crush the will of people in the strategic hill region, who have been participating in large protests against Assad's autocratic rule.
Other refugees said the troops killed or burned cows and sheep, adding that agricultural land around the village of Sarmaniya to the south of Jisr al-Shughour had been destroyed.
The Syrian official state news agency said that "armed terrorist groups" had burned land in Idlib province as part of a sabotage scheme.
"The Syrian people are telling Bashar al-Assad we don't want you. God burns his heart. He has burned our land. He made us destitute," the woman refugee told NTV.
Damascus has banned most foreign correspondents from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.
Human rights groups say security forces have killed more than 1,100 Syrian civilians in increasingly bloody efforts to suppress demonstrations calling for Assad's removal, political freedoms and end to corruption and poverty. The protests were inspired by uprisings against other entrenched autocrats in the Arab world .
A senior Turkish diplomat said 4,300 Syrians had crossed the border and that Turkey was prepared for a further influx, though he declined to predict how many might come.
Turkey, a Sunni country that had backed Syria's ruling hierarchy, who belong to Syria's minority Alawite sect, has been increasingly critical of Assad's use of force to quell the protests as they spread to regions near the 800 km (500 mile) long border between the two countries.
"Turkey welcomed a great many number of guests in the past in their times of most dire need. We can do that again," Foreign Ministry Deputy Undersecretary Halit Cevik was quoted as saying by state-run Anatolian news agency.
In Washington, Jay Carney, President Barack Obama's spokesman, said: "Syrian leaders have no excuse for denying humanitarian assistance by a neutral body like the ICRC. If Syria's leaders fail to provide this access, they will once again be showing contempt for the dignity of the Syrian people."
Refugees could be seen walking around the grounds of a camp at Boynuyogun where tents have been pitched inside an old hangar, and another camp at Yayladagi has been established in the grounds of a disused tobacco company.
At a third site, set up in fields close to the border but so far still empty, workers carried beds into tents on Saturday.
Radikal newspaper said Turkey would establish a buffer zone if migrant inflows from Syria exceed 10,000.
Just inside Syria, thousands more people were gathering close to the frontier, according to an activist helping coordinate the movement of refugees.
"The border area has turned practically into a buffer zone," said the man, who identified himself only as Abu Fadi. "Families have taken shelter under the trees and there are 7,000 to 10,000 people here now."
Thirty-six protesters were shot dead across Syria on Friday, activists said. Syrian authorities deployed helicopter gunships in the town of Maarat al-Numaan, they added, in the first known use of air power against unrest.
The government, which has blamed violence in the protest wave on "terrorists," said on Saturday the army had arrested two armed groups in Jisr al-Shughour after launching operations there in response to requests from residents. The state news agency SANA said they seized guns, explosives and detonators.
SANA also said that a group of journalists and photographers came under fire on Saturday from "terrorist groups" at the entrance to the town, but that none were wounded.
Tharwat Arafat, a refugee who described himself as a conscript with the army fourth division said he had been ordered to fire at unarmed protesters.
"We used to try to hit in the air so not to kill protesters. Five of my colleagues refused to shoot totally. They were hit in the back and killed," he told the Turkish channel NTV.
Britain, France, Germany and Portugal have asked the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad, though veto-wielding Russia has said it would oppose such a move.
Denouncing Syrian government actions, the White House said Friday's "appalling violence" had led the United States to back the European draft resolution at the United Nations.
A statement from the United Nations said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was deeply concerned by the violence in Syria. A U.N. spokesman said Ban had been trying to call Assad all week but was told that the president was "not available."
Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem wrote to the Security Council accusing the opposition of violence and sabotage, al Arabiya television said. Foreign governments were basing their views on "inaccurate information," it said.
(Writing by Dominic Evans and Khaled Yacoub Oweis; Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in Turkey and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Mark Heinrich)
- Tweet this
- Share this
- Digg this