Truth about 'massacre' stays buried as fight for border town goes on

What really happened in the restive town of Jisr al-Shughour? Justin Vela reports
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From the moment that news broke of a "massacre" in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, it took six days for the Syrian military to rumble into the restive north-west and crush any remnants of opposition in the near-empty town.

The operation – which was over by Sunday night – was brutal, left homes and livelihoods destroyed and marked a significant new phase in the three-month uprising, with regime soldiers apparently defecting in significant numbers for the first time.

The operation has heightened international anger over the crackdown and put further pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Critics included Turkey, which has received some of the thousands of fleeing citizens.

The first indication of the crushing operation came on 6 June when Syrian authorities claimed 120 soldiers and security personnel had been killed by "armed gangs" in Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, a hotbed of demonstrations against the regime.

State media said 80 were killed in the town's security headquarters. The dead were mutilated and some thrown into a river. Some witnesses claimed the deaths came when the military turned their guns on soldiers who refused to fire on unarmed protesters.

In the following days, state media and ministers warned that the military was coming. "The state ... will not stay arms folded in the face of armed attacks on the security of the homeland," said Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar. The warnings were enough to trigger the start of a rush to the Turkish border.

The "security operation" was launched by the Syrian army's infamous 4th Brigade, commanded by Maher Assad, the brother of dictator Bashar. As 200 vehicles, including tanks, and thousands of soldiers moved north, the brigade conducted a scorched-earth policy. Refugees who fled from in and around the town said their animals were killed and their crops burned. Homes were torched – allegedly with civilians inside – and hundreds were arrested, mostly men aged between 18 and 40.

The army arrived outside the town on Friday and attempted to seal it off. They defused bombs attached to bridges that had been set to try to delay them, according to state media. Some locals stayed behind and set up roadblocks to give the few people who remained behind time to flee. "We waited to get about 10 per cent of the population out. The remaining 90 per cent had already managed to leave," defector Lieutenant-Colonel Hussein Harmoush told online Ugarit News.

The Syrian forces began the attack on Friday. Tanks fired indiscriminately at the town; helicopter gun-ships flew low and fired on fleeing residents, refugees told The Independent.

Buildings were destroyed and cars burned, refugee Mohammed Amr told The Independent. One resident, known as Bassem, left Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday afternoon. "I wanted to stay there and look after my house. My family had already gone away and my wife did not want me to stay on. I put what I could into the car and took it to my uncle's house in a village.

"All night we could hear big explosions. I took my uncle's motorcycle and came here on that. My wife and children are in the mountains."

By the time the Syrian military took control of the town on Sunday, it was nearly empty.

That night, state television broadcast images of what it said was a mass grave in the town, allegedly containing the mutilated bodies of security forces killed by the opposition.

The one-sided fighting continued yesterday as the military pursued armed groups who had fled.