Assad accused of brutal border crackdown

New mines and increased border security can make refugees' journey to Lebanon a deadly one

Tripoli, Lebanon

The already perilous journey for refugees fleeing the violence in Syria has become increasingly deadly in recent weeks as President Bashar al-Assad attempts to tighten control of the conflict-ravaged country's borders with fresh landmines, say aid workers and fleeing refugees.

As spring arrives, the Syrian army is said to be laying new mines along the 330km long border with Lebanon to replace those washed away during winter flooding and removed by activists.

It comes amid wider attempts by the Syrian regime to disrupt networks smuggling people, weapons and aid through the once notoriously porous borders, and reports of recent incursions into Lebanon to rout out rebels.

"We have heard that now that the weather has turned sunny the army has been replanting the mines," said Hassan al-Sabeh, the Lebanon country manager for Islamic Relief. Many refugees are now prevented from crossing at the Syrian side of official checkpoints, he said, forcing them to seek out illegal routes. "It's become much more dangerous."

The testimony comes a day after the Syrian government said it would co-operate with the a ceasefire plan put forward by the former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who has set an 10 April deadline for a cessation in the fighting.

One refugee who fled to Lebanon's second city of Tripoli two weeks ago told The Independent that she scoured the ground for any sign of hidden mines as she crossed with her seven-year-old son, and that the border hills are littered with the gory remains of those who had failed to spot them.

"I saw the human flesh and body parts on the ground where people had trodden on them," said Afida, 41, from the devastated city of Homs. At one point where the valley she crossed was still flooded, she had to guide her son across the swollen waters on a makeshift bridge made from planks of wood with a rope strung overhead.

Activists in Homs say that their smuggling networks have become increasingly compromised as the Syrian army clamps down on the border areas. "Between every tree along the border there's a mine," said Abo Bakr, from the Baba Amr district of Homs.

Islamic Relief, one of the few intentional organisations to establish a supply route for aid to Homs, has smuggled £13,000 in medical aid to the city but says its operations are becoming increasingly dangerous.

The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Jakob Kellenberger, met senior Syrian officials including the Foreign Minister, Walid al-Moallem, in Damascus yesterday to appeal for greater access to civilians and a two-hour daily halt to the fighting to allow aid to be administered.

Amnesty International said yesterday that 13 pupils, aged between 17 and 19 were arrested on Sunday at their school in the town of Daraya, just outside Damascus. They were beaten and verbally abused in front of their classmates before being taken away.

Jürg Montani, head of the ICRC delegation in Lebanon, could not confirm whether the deteriorating security situation for fleeing refugees would also be raised in the meetings. "We are certainly concerned about anything that makes the passage for refugees dangerous," he said.

The refugees that do make it over come with stories of the horrors that they have left behind. Afida's 21-year-old son had been fighting with the Free Syrian Army. When the army moved into the city his name was known. She pulls out her mobile phone, with a picture of the bloodied corpse of a young man. "They knew who they were after, when the battle was finished the government thugs came for him," she said.

"I found his body in the hospital. They had gouged his eyes out and then shot him in the back."

'He cannot stay': Exiled uncle hits out

The exiled uncle of the Syrian President yesterday said he believes it is unlikely his nephew will be able to hold on to power much longer as violence rages across much of the country. "The problems are now general to all parts of Syria – there are no places that have escaped violence – so I don't think he can stay," Rifaat al-Assad, who currently resides in Paris but owns property in London's Mayfair, told the BBC.

The 74-year-old has set up his own opposition group, and yesterday hinted he may have designs on returning to play a political role in Syria. "The Assad family has got much more importance and support than some of the meaningless figures [of the opposition Syrian National Council] who we see on TV screens now," he said.

Loveday Morris

Anger as assad makes Time-100 list

Syrian protesters have poured scorn upon President Bashar al-Assad being named as one of the most influential people in the world after Time magazine listed the dictator among the contenders for its annual poll.

Twitter was awash with the hashtag #ShameOnTIME yesterday, as Mr Assad's opponents complained that a dictator who has overseen the killing of more than 9,000 people over the past year is not fit for the Time-100 list.

The weekly news magazine has underlined that being influential and being a good person are not necessarily the same thing. Previous winners of its separate Person of the Year title have included Adolf Hitler in 1938 and Joseph Stalin, who took the title in 1939 and 1942.

Nevertheless, Mr Assad's inclusion among 200 names compiled for a public vote on the magazine's website stoked anger amongst dissidents. One campaigner said it was "disturbing and disrespectful", while another noted: "His influence doesn't exceed murder, rape and torture."

Mr Assad's ability to maintain power a year into the Syrian uprising was credited by the magazine as a legitimate reason for his place on the list.

"Many hoped Assad would have fallen from power by now, but he has survived a year of rebellion by unleashing ruthless violence against opposition strongholds, turning that effort into a sectarian civil war," says his entry in the magazine poll.

Rob Hastings

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