Syria forces storm border town near Turkey

Town under attack by forces loyal to President Assad provided food to refugees fleeing conflict.

Syrian troops and gunmen loyal to President Bashar Assad stormed a town near the Turkish border on Saturday, burning houses and arresting dozens, witnesses said, in a persistent military campaign to crush popular revolt.

The latest assault followed another Friday of protests, which have grown in size and scope over the last three months, despite Assad’s violent clampdown on public dissent. Activists said security forces shot dead 19 protesters on Friday.

“They came at 7 a.m. to Bdama. I counted 9 tanks, 10 armoured carriers, 20 jeeps and 10 buses. I saw shabbiha (pro-Assad gunmen) setting fire to two houses,” said Saria Hammouda, a lawyer living in the border town, in the Jisr al-Shughour region, where thousands of Syrians had fled to nearby Turkey after the army clamped down on the area earlier in the month.

Bdama is one of the nerve centers providing food and supplies to several thousand other Syrians who have escaped the violence from frontier villages but chose to take shelter temporarily in fields on the Syrian side of the boundary.

“Bdama’s residents don’t dare take bread to the refugees and the refugees are fearful of arrests if they go into Bdama for food,” Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters.

Another witness said government troops were also burning crops near hillsides in an apparent scorched earth policy.

European powers initiated a detente with Assad prior to the street unrest to try to draw the authoritarian Syrian leader, whose family has dominated Syria for 41 years, away from Iran and also stabilize Lebanon.

But they now say Damascus should face tougher sanctions over the violence against demonstrators seeking more political freedoms and an end to corruption, the impunity of political leaders and their allies, and poverty.

Syrian rights groups say at least 1,300 civilians have been killed and 10,000 people detained since March.

“Security grip is weakening”

Tens of thousands rallied across Syria on Friday, defying Assad’s repression and ignoring a pledge that his tycoon cousin Rami Makhlouf, a symbol of corruption among the elite, would renounce his business empire and channel his wealth to charity.

Witnesses and activists said people rallied in the southern province of Deraa where the revolt began, as well as in the Kurdish northeast, the province of Deir al-Zor, which borders Iraq’s Sunni heartland, the city of Hama north of Damascus, the Mediterranean coast and suburbs of the capital itself.

“The security grip is weakening because the protests are growing in numbers and spreading. More people are risking their lives to demonstrate. The Syrian people realize that this is an opportunity for liberty that comes once in hundreds of years,” opposition figure Walid al-Bunni told Reuters from Damascus.

The worst bloodshed on Friday was in Homs, a merchant city of 1 million people in central Syria, where the Local Coordination Committees, a main activist group linked to protesters, said 10 demonstrators were killed.

State television said a policeman was killed by gunmen.

One protester was also reported killed in the northern commercial hub of Aleppo, the first to die there in the unrest.

The state news agency SANA said nine people, including civilians and police, were killed in attacks by gunmen.

The Syrian government has barred most international journalists from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.

Syrian authorities blame the violence on “armed terrorist groups” and Islamists, backed by foreign powers.

Two towns on the main Damascus-Aleppo highway north of Homs were also encircled by troops and tanks, residents said, five days after the army retook Jisr al-Shughour, sending thousands fleeing across the border into Turkey.

Refugees from the northwestern region said troops and gunmen loyal to Assad known as “shabbiha” were pressing on with a scorched earthed campaign in the hill farm area by burning crops, ransacking houses and shooting randomly.

The International Federation for Human Rights and the U.S. based Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies said in a statement that, according to local sources, Syrian forces had killed more than 130 people and arrested over 2,000 in Jisr al-Shughour and surrounding villages over the last few days.

The number of refugees who have crossed over from Syria has reached 10,114, and another 10,000 were sheltering by the border just inside Syria, according to Turkish officials.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 300 soldiers and police have also been killed.

Security Council deadlock

Assad has responded to the unrest with a mix of military repression and political gestures aimed at placating protesters.

He has faced international condemnation over the bloodshed, and has seen the first signs of cracks in his security forces after a clash in Jisr al-Shughour earlier this month in which the government said 120 security personnel were killed.

There have been no mass desertions from the military, but the loyalty of Sunni Muslim conscripts might waver if the crackdown on mainly Sunni protesters continues.

Assad’s family and many military commanders are members of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. In a spillover of the unrest into Lebanon, Sunni and Alawite gunmen clashed in the northern city of Tripoli and four people were killed.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, trying to break a deadlock over a proposed UN Security Council resolution to condemn Assad’s crackdown on protesters.

Russia and China dislike the idea of any Council judgment on Syria and have played little role in discussions on a draft resolution.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said France and Germany had agreed to lobby for stronger sanctions against Syria for “unacceptable actions and repression” of demonstrators.

( / 18.06.2011)

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