Sunday 25 February 2018

Thousands flee troops in Syrian revolt

Deserters ready to repel Assad regime

ZEINA KARAM in Damascus

Hundreds of Syrians fled to Turkey yesterday to escape a military assault designed to quash a three-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Witnesses said more than 4,000 Syrians have crossed over and up to 10,000 had taken shelter among trees near the border since forces commanded by Mr Assad's brother Maher sent tanks and troops into the northwestern province of Idlib.

People said they feared revenge attacks from security forces for violence in which Syria said 120 troops were killed -- but which refugees and rights campaigners said resulted from soldiers mutinying following the killings of civilians.

Thousands streamed out of the town of Jisr al-Shughour, on the road between Syria's second city Aleppo and the country's main port of Latakia.

"When the massacre happened in Jisr al-Shughour the army split, or they started fighting each other and blamed it on us," a woman refugee, who refused to give her name, told Turkish news channel NTV.

Bassam, a tile layer, said: "Tanks are now 1km away from Jisr al-Shughour, near a sugar plant, and they are firing shells and machine gunning the town. There are only a few people left. I escaped on my motorcycle through dirt tracks in the hills."

He showed mobile phone camera footage of a dead young man, between 18 to 25 years old, with a bullet wound in his leg, and a very large exit wound in his stomach.

Another picture showed a dead young man who had been shot in the head. He said the two were killed just outside Jisr al-Shughour by troops under the command of Maher al-Assad.

He said the troops burnt wheat crops in three villages near Jisr al-Shughour in a scorched-earth policy to try to crush the will of people in the strategic hill region, who have been participating in large protests against President Assad's autocratic rule.

Other refugees said the troops killed or burnt cows and sheep, adding that agricultural land around the village of Sarmaniya to the south of Jisr al-Shughour had been destroyed.

The Syrian official state news agency said that "armed terrorist groups" had burnt land in Idlib province as part of a sabotage scheme.

"The Syrian people are telling Bashar al-Assad we don't want you. God burns his heart. He has burnt our land. He made us destitute," the woman refugee told NTV.

Damascus has banned most foreign correspondents from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of events. But human rights groups say security forces have killed more than 1,100 Syrian civilians in increasingly bloody efforts to suppress demonstrations calling for Mr Assad's removal, political freedoms and an end to corruption and poverty.

A senior Turkish diplomat said 4,300 Syrians had crossed the border and that Turkey was prepared for a further influx, though he declined to predict how many might come.

Turkey, a Sunni country that had backed Syria's ruling hierarchy -- who belong to Syria's minority Alawite sect -- has been increasingly critical of Mr Assad's use of force to quell the protests as they spread to regions near the 800km-long border between the two countries.

Radikal newspaper said Turkey would establish a buffer zone if migrant inflows from Syria exceed 10,000.

"The border area has turned practically into a buffer zone," said the man, who identified himself only as Abu Fadi. "Families have taken shelter under the trees and there are 7,000 to 10,000 people here now."

Thirty-six protesters were shot dead across Syria last Friday, activists said. Syrian authorities deployed helicopter gunships in the town of Maarat al-Numaan, they added, in the first known use of air power against unrest.

The government, which has blamed violence in the protest wave on "terrorists", said yesterday the army had arrested two armed groups in Jisr al-Shughour after launching operations there in response to requests from residents. The state news agency SANA said they seized guns, explosives and detonators.

SANA also said a group of journalists and photographers came under fire yesterday from "terrorist groups" at the entrance to the town, but that none were wounded.

Tharwat Arafat, a refugee who described himself as a conscript with the army fourth division, said he had been ordered to fire at unarmed protesters.

"We used to try to hit in the air so not to kill protesters. Five of my colleagues refused to shoot totally. They were hit in the back and killed," he told the Turkish channel NTV.

Britain, France, Germany and Portugal have asked the UN Security Council to condemn Mr Assad, though veto-wielding Russia has said it would oppose such a move.

Denouncing Syrian government actions, the White House said last Friday's "appalling violence" had led the US to back the European draft resolution at the UN.

A statement from the UN said Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was deeply concerned by the violence in Syria.

Sunday Independent

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