SECRET agents wearing coloured wristbands as their sole distinguishing mark directed a civilian massacre in Jisr al-Shughur, fleeing residents said yesterday as army tanks moved into the largely deserted Syrian town.
Hundreds more refugees poured across the border into Turkey, bringing the total to more than 2,000 forced into flight in anticipation of a mission of retribution led by President Bashar al-Assad's notorious younger brother.
Maher al-Assad, the commander of the elite Fourth Division and Republican Guard, has vowed to take vengeance on the town after its inhabitants were accused of killing 120 government soldiers and policemen over the weekend.
Jisr al-Shughur has effectively become the first town to fall from government control since the 11-week uprising against the president began. But its residents tell a story that differs vastly from official propaganda, one in which they are the victims of a government operation to crush all dissent, no matter what the human cost.
As in many cities and towns across Syria, the residents of Jisr al-Shughur rose up in protest over the brutal tactics the government has used to repress dissent. The regime responded with overwhelming force.
According to one imam, speaking from a hospital bed in the Turkish city of Antakya, the first sign of trouble came as men dressed in civilian clothes, suspected members of the feared Syrian intelligence, or Mukhabarat, swarmed through the centre of the town.
Shot in the thigh, the imam said he was captured by the security forces and brought to a police station, where he was beaten around the head with a machine gun and tortured.
He said they tried to persuade him to say on camera that protesters had been using guns and explosives.
They are widely believed to be members of the Mukhabarat or the 'Shabbiha', a quasi-paramilitary unit of regime loyalists allegedly created in the 1990s to run smuggling operations for members of the Assad family.
As agents circled, the imam said, a row broke out with regular conscripts who refused to open fire on the crowds.
In the confusion, two helicopter gunships appeared and opened fire indiscriminately at the protesters, he said. Opposition activists insist that the government's claim of 120 dead soldiers is an exaggeration and that the fatalities were caused by the security forces turning against each other.
Although the officer corps of the army largely consists of members of the Assad family's Alawite Shia minority, many conscripts and regular soldiers are Sunni and increasingly sympathise with the protesters.
Apart from the mounting death toll -- thought to stand at more than 1,300 -- soldiers and civilians alike have been outraged by the routine use of torture against captured protesters. (© The Daily Telegraph, London)