Thousands flee Syria across Turkish border

A third refugee camp opens as Assad's forces attack

Thousands of refugees continued to flee Syria across the Turkish border yesterday, as troops loyal to President Bashar Assad continued with gunship and tank attacks on the city of Jisr al-Shughour.

More than 4,000 people had already crossed the Syrian-Turkish border, officials confirmed. Thousands more are believed to be massed on the Syrian side and are poised to flee if the attacks came closer. The exodus prompted Turkish officials to open a third refugee camp, as the numbers began to swell throughout the day.

The new camp, which is run by the Turkish military, will be able to hold a further 5,000.

At least 36 people were killed across Syria on Friday as the armed forces intervened, but the toll is expected to rise, as displaced families try to account for missing friends and relatives. Turkish medics at the camps have treated about 100 in a tent hospital for injuries suffered during the bombardment.

The Turkish foreign ministry official Halit Cevik said: "Turkey welcomed a great number of guests in the past in their times of most dire need. We can do that again."

Normally home to about 45,000 people, Jisr al-Shughour was virtually deserted yesterday, with estimates that up to 80 per cent of the population had abandoned their homes.

The new camp at Boynuyogun was opened as camps at Altinozu and Yayladagi quickly filled up with the latest influx. Officials secured the camp with welded fences and set up power lines. Metin Corabatir from the UN Refugee Agency said: "We don't expect the inflow to end rapidly. The news we are hearing is that there are more people waiting to get in on the other side."

Those who spoke to The Independent on Sunday yesterday said they were worried they would not be able to leave the Turkish refugee camps once taken there. One, who asked to be named only as Muhammed, said he "prays" for Turkish troops to move across the border and set up a safe zone for civilians.

This follows the most violent response to anti-government demonstrations since protests began three months ago. Crops were torched and government critics were killed by machine-gun fire during a sustained assault on Friday. President Assad's 40-year rule has been under attack since regimes in Tunisia and Egypt were toppled following popular protests earlier this year. Syria, which has a history of crushing dissent with the use of its armed forces, has taken one of the hardest lines against public demonstrations.

Military units spent yesterday securing villages and towns. There was speculation that the scale of the government reaction to the demonstrations in recent days could be rooted in worries inside President Assad's regime about growing thoughts of mutiny among security officials. In Jisr al-Shughour, there were fragmented reports of defections leading to the government's move to take what it described as "decisive action".

In Guvecci, Turkey, one protester who fled Jisr al-Shughour with a bullet wound in his thigh said: "Some of the security forces defected and there were some in the army who refused the orders of their superiors. They were firing on each other."

The United States condemned the raids and warned the Syrian government that it is taking the country "on a dangerous path".

A White House spokesman Jay Carney described the attacks as "outrageous" on Friday night, adding: "We stand by the Syrian people who have shown their courage in demanding dignity and the transition to democracy that they deserve."

Communications out of Syria are restricted, with foreign journalists usually barred from reporting from inside its borders unless accompanied by a Syrian official.

The Turkish authorities were themselves reluctant yesterday for reporters speak to displaced families, but those who have fled began to provide insights into the bloody development. One man who spoke to The IoS said he had seen a 17-year-old boy shot and killed by the Syrian military in Jisr al-Shughour.

Another, who gave his name to the Associated Press only as Adil, described the mismatch between heavily armed troops and civilians: "They are burning down everything there. They said they even killed animals. The people have no weapons; they can't defend themselves. The only thing they can do is escape." Another told Al Jazeera: "They were waiting for us, like an ambush. When we arrived at a certain spot, they just appeared. The people didn't kill outright; they beat them till they died. We had no guns, no arms, nothing in our hands."

Those who have not left the town were said to have barricaded themselves behind piles of car tyres.

Turkey said it would do all it could to help the refugees, but warned that it may need international help as numbers increased.

Syrian state television has repeatedly blamed "terrorist" gangs for the intervention, and stated that the raids were simply a response to the killing of 120 security officers by rebels. It is believed that the first attacks from the air were orchestrated by the President's brother, Maher.

One agency reporter was shown around selected areas alongside Syrian troops as the army attempted to prove it had suffered ambushes at the hands of gangs. In nearby villages, reporters were shown grenades said to have been used by rebels and, again through state television, the army claimed that the burned crops were the fault of demonstrators who had recklessly started fires as government forces approached.

There have been demonstrations continuing in Damascus and Aleppo too, but a more severe clash between the opposing sides occurred in Maaret al-Numan, a town close to Jisr al-Shughour, on Friday. There, thousands of protesters clashed with police and security officers as a police station was set on fire and the government rolled out the tanks.

The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said of President Assad: "I say this clearly and openly, from a humanitarian point of view, his brother is not behaving in a humane manner. And he is chasing after savagery."

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said President Assad was not taking his calls. Mr Ban's spokesman, Martin Nesirky, said: "The Secretary General has been keen to speak to President Assad. He tried to place a call yesterday but unfortunately the President was not available. He tried to place the call more than one time, but he was not available."

Libya: Gaddafi offered a way out by Turkish PM

Libyan troops clashed with anti-government rebels again yesterday as fighting shut down the coastal highway leading from Tripoli to Tunisia. The closed road at Zawiyah is a route used to keep supplies coming into the country. The skirmish followed heavy pounding of the outskirts of the rebel-held town of Misrata by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces on Friday, killing at least 22 people and injuring 100 more.

It came a day after British Apache helicopters had targeted Libyan rocket launchers, communications equipment, and tanks hidden in an orchard. Meanwhile, in a TV interview broadcast on Friday, Turkey's Prime Minister, Recap Tayyip Erdogan, said he had offered to help the Libyan leader quit.

"Gaddafi has no other option but to leave Libya with the condition that he is given certain guarantees," he said. "We have given him these guarantees: we said we will help you leave for wherever you would like." But he added that he had yet to receive a reply to his offer.

Richard Osley