Refugees take flight as troops launch attacks on rebel stronghold

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The Independent Online

Syrian forces stormed a city yesterday which had become a symbol of militant opposition after an intense artillery and tank bombardment. But defiant protests, and the regime's violent response to them, continued with helicopter gunships opening fire on demonstrators and troops setting homes on fire in a string of towns.

The spreading strife led to a fresh exodus of terrified families seeking sanctuary. More than 5,000 were in rapidly filling camps in neighbouring Turkey, including babies, the elderly and the ill.

Another 10,000 were stranded on the Syrian side of the border with little food and water and no shelter. Some who had been carried injured to the border, and with no access to medical treatment, did not survive. Funerals were held for a dozen of the dead in the "no man's land" yesterday.

By nightfall regime forces were in control of Jisr al-Shughour. The streets were deserted, the vast majority of the 40,000 residents had fled and around 200 who had stayed behind had either been killed or taken away under arrest. Many of the buildings had been destroyed by shell fire, the troops parked their tanks and armoured cars beside burnt-out cars.

Four decapitated and uniformed bodies were found in the ruins of the military police head- quarters, the grim aftermath of a mutiny by security forces in the city and evidence of the greatest threat to Bashar al-Assad's rule since the start of the uprising. The regime had claimed that "armed gangs" had killed 120 members of the security forces at Jisr al-Shughour, necessitating the assault. Yesterday state-controlled TV stated that forces had uncovered mass graves of security men and the corpses bore marks of atrocities carried out by extremist groups.

Residents and human rights groups give a different account, saying the dead were victims of loyalist forces who had executed those who had refused to shoot civilians. "We were not involved in any fighting, it was the soldiers who had been killing people for simply going out to demand justice," said Abu Hatin, who had fled the city three days ago. "They had been shooting at us from rooftops and windows. I saw a young man dragged out of his home, they shot him as they were putting him in their car.

"The fighting was between the soldiers, some were for the people and some against," he said. "Some of the police and soldiers tried to protect us."

There were fierce clashes at Jisr al-Shughour yesterday following the two-pronged attack. Locals claimed the fighting was due to former security force members turning their guns on forces still loyal to Assad. About 60 policemen had stayed behind to defend the city.

There had been previous instances of defections since the start of the three-month long uprising. But the current offensive, in Idlib province in the north-west, appeared to have been a catalyst for defections by discontented military in a region with a long history of dissent. Many policemen and conscript soldiers from the area had taken up arms to defend their communities.

The operations in Jisr al-Shughour, Mirat al-Numan and villages surrounding the Jabl al-Zawiya mountains are said to have been led by an unit commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Maher al-Assad, a brother of the President.

They were supported by detachments of the Mukhabarat – the secret police – and the Shabbiha, a militia from the Alawite community from which the country's ruling elite are drawn.

Mustafa Osso, a senior human rights activist, said advancing troops were meeting resistance from former members of the military. "This is the biggest and most dangerous wave of defections. They are having to fight hundreds of army defectors," he said. Some who had left the military were attempting to leave the country. "We cannot stay. If they capture some protesters, they will go to prison. If they capture us, we shall be shot," said Ibrahim Hassan as he made his way to the Turkish border with a comrade. "A lot of us, even some officers, did not want to have anything to do with what was going on."

Others who have managed to escape came with tales of brutalities committed by Lt Col Maher al-Assad's troops. Bassam, a roofer, had mobile telephone footage of a young man, dead with bullet wounds to his stomach and legs; another young man had been killed with a shot to the head. Both had died, he said, just outside Jisr al-Shughour. "There are only a few people left. I escaped on my motorcycle through dirt tracks in the hills," he said.

Mehmoud, a 39-year-old farm labourer, said: "The problem really started because one of the soldiers killed, Basil el Masri, was very popular. Ten thousand people turned up at his funeral.

"They like killing. I shall stay in Turkey until things get better. My family will join me here."

But there is apprehension that the upheavals in Syria may lead to destabilisation in Turkey, where parliamentary elections took place yesterday in a fractious political landscape. The area adjacent to the Syrian border has a mixed population of Sunnis, Alavis who are a Shia offshoot, and Christians. Most of the Syrian refugees are Sunnis.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, who had established cordial links in the past with President Assad, had called the actions of the Syrian forces "barbaric". Ankara is said to be considering establishing a buffer zone inside Syrian territory if refugee numbers exceed 10,000.

The Syrian regime had said that 500 members of the security forces have died since the start of the uprising, including 120 last week in Jisr al-Shughour. The opposition estimates that 1,400 have died and 10,000 have been detained.

Last night there was growing international calls for the violence to end. The United States called on the Syrian regime to halt its offensive and allow immediate access for the International Committee of the Red Cross to help refugees, detainees and the wounded.

The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, said "I'm deeply concerned and saddened (that) so many people have been killed in the course of peaceful demonstrations."

In Damascus, however, a regime spokesman insisted that the action at Jisr al-Shughour, to "protect the population from armed groups which had been intimidating them", and similar military operations would continue.

The opposition too maintain that they have no intention of backing down.

Meanwhile, in Jordan, the king bowed to popular demands for elected cabinets last night but gave no timetable for change. It was the first time that King Abdullah II, who has absolute power, has made such a concession after six months of pro-democracy protests.