15 Jun 2011

More Syrians flee as tanks and helicopters sweep north

Almost 20,000 Syrians have fled from their homes as government forces continue to mount a bloody crackdown on opponents of President Assad.

Syrian refugees cross the Turkish border

Thousands of Syrians have fled from the town of Maarat al-Numaan as troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad continue to push into the north of the country.

Government forces pushed towards the town of 100,000 after arresting hundreds of people in villages close to Jisr al-Shughour, near the border with Turkey.

A witness said: “Cars are continuing to stream out of Maarat al-Numaan in all directions. People are loading them with everything, blankets, mattresses on roofs.”

Another resident, pharmacy professor Othman al-Bedeiwi, said about 70 per cent of people have fled, and helicopters have been ferrying troops to a staging post just outside the town.

In the tribal east, where most of Syria‘s oil is produced, tanks and armoured vehicles deployed in the city of Deir al-Zor and around Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq.

Cars are continuing to stream out of Maarat al-Numaan in all directions. Othman al-Bedeiwi

More than 8,500 Syrians have fled to Turkey, which has set up four refugee camps across the border from Jisr al-Shughour, and more are arriving by the day.

The Syrian government has called for refugees to return to the town, where it said 120 security personnel were killed earlier this month, saying the area is now safe.

More than half the displaced Syrians in Turkey are women and children, and activists say another 10,000 are sheltering just inside Syria.

Fleeing refugees described shootings by troops and Alawite gunmen loyal to Assad, known as “shabbiha”, as well as the burning of land and crops.

A 36-year-old Syrian man who gave his name as Ahmed said: “We decided to flee to Turkey after learning troops had arrived in Jisr al Shughour – I, my wife and six kids. We heard they were burning down the city, including the mosques.

They fight us like we were infidels. Eyewitness

“We came here to protect our family. We’re not against them, but they fight us like we were infidels.

“I don’t plan to go back until the situation improves there. Some of my relatives were wounded during protests in Jisr al Shughour, one of them was shot in the foot, two were killed, one was shot in the head and is in intensive care now.”

1,100 killed and thousands detained

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said on Wednesday since Assad began cracking down on dissidents in mid-March more than 1,100 people are believed to have been killed, many of them unarmed civilians, and up to 10,000 detained .

She said the UN had received allegations of executions, mass arrests and torture. Entire towns had been besieged, including Deraa, preventing civilians from fleeing, depriving them of food and denying wounded people access to medical care. Syrian rights groups put the death toll at more than 1,400.

An envoy from Mr Assad is in Turkey for crisis talks with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a former ally who has become increasingly critical of Syria’s human rights record as the violence has escalated.

In the capital Damascus, thousands of Mr Assad’s supporters lined the streets to fly a Syrian flag that measured more than 2km in length. But in the town of Hama, activists say more than 10,000 protesters have taken to the streets to demand an end to the Assad regime’s rule.