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Civilians slaughtered as Assad unleashes gunships

Fighting moves to new front as Annan tries to broker deal with Syria

The smuggler's radio crackled into life as shadowy figures emerged from a thicket on the Syrian side of the river, faintly illuminated by a full moon whose light barely penetrated the cloud and drizzle.

The men were army deserters escaping Bashar al-Assad's Syria with the help of rebel sympathisers, and smugglers who demanded hard cash in return for arranging the dinghy that ferried them across.

"I had to get out, I had no weapon to fight with and if they caught me they would have cut off my head," said Abdul, a gangly 18-year-old who stepped out of a dinghy to be embraced by a fellow rebel.

Like scores of other refugees -- villagers and townspeople, soldiers and civilians, doctors and activists -- they brought with them stories of an unfolding horror in northern Syria.

In a frightening escalation of the Syrian regime's war on its people, helicopter gunships now hang in the air above the countryside, shooting at civilians on the move, or turning their fire on rebel villages -- in addition to the tanks and artillery already punishing those who dared to oppose Mr Assad.

Witnesses who crossed into Turkey last week described the killing of 82 people in Idlib province in six major incidents over recent days; the total figure across the whole area is likely to be far higher.

One terrified man had counted up to 40 bodies after helicopters and infantry attacked his village just a few miles from the border.

Others described men and boys being rounded up in villages and taken off by the security forces.

While the world's attention was fixed on Homs, the scene of siege and slaughter earlier this month, 100 miles to the north a new offensive was unleashed, largely unreported.

Yesterday there were growing fears that the offensive was a prelude to an attack on the city of Idlib, the stronghold of the revolution in the north -- described by activists as a second Homs in the making.

A column of 42 tanks and 131 troop carriers was reported heading for the city, as shelling of rebel-held districts was stepped up, escape routes cut and the siege tightened.

On the ground in Syria's killing fields, there were fresh reports of fighting. In Idlib province 16 rebels died in an ambush, and in a separate incident four government soldiers died when their convoy was attacked.

In the mountainous terrain of Idlib province, where soldiers can easily be ambushed on winding roads and rebels can sometimes blow up tanks, helicopter gunships are a brutally effective weapon, almost impervious to ground fire.

Regime opponents in Turkey feel forsaken by the outside world. Their desperate situation and the slaughter of the people they swore to protect does not seem to have brought unity to the rebels.

Yesterday international pressure continued to build on Mr Assad. Arab and Russian foreign ministers meeting in Cairo called for an end to the violence, "whatever its source", and called for unhindered humanitarian access, especially to Homs.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar's foreign minister, issued one of the strongest criticisms yet of the Syrian regime by a fellow Arab nation, saying the killing of civilians amounted to "genocide".

A mission to end the violence led by Kofi Annan, the new envoy for the United Nations and Arab League, appeared to suffer a setback on its first day in Damascus.

He met Mr Assad, in what state television described as a "positive atmosphere".

The president said he was ready to consider any honest attempt to find a solution, but ruled out dialogue while "armed groups" were active. He insisted that Syria was under attack from gangs backed by foreign enemies.

Opposition groups, meanwhile, have dismissed Mr Annan's chances of achieving anything much.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent