15 Sep 2011

Turkey accused after defector returned to Syria

A Syrian army officer who defected to supposedly lead an armed resistance group has been returned from a Turkish refugee camp to appear on Syrian state television. Channel 4 News’ Andy Lee reports.

Harmoush (SANA)

Six months to the day since the start of unrest in Syria, Lieutenant Colonel Hussein al-Harmoush appeared in a pre-recorded interview aired on the SANA news agency.

He said he defected because of bloody incidents, and insisted he was not ordered to open fire on civilians while serving in the Syrian army.

The officer became a prominent figure of defiance against the Syrian government in June and became the first military officer to defect. Videos of him calling on soldiers to abandon the regime began to appear on the internet.

Al-Harmoush changed sides during the Syrian military’s siege on the north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour on the 4th of June. In two days of violence there Syrian human rights observers claim that 172 civilians were killed.

The government also claimed that up to 120 security personnel were killed by ‘armed gangs’. The violence left the town desolate and prompted thousands of Syrians in the region to flee to Turkey.

Read more: Syria forces accused of sexual violence in Jisr al-Shughour

Harmoush flees to Turkey

It’s thought Al-Harmoush ordered his men to open fire on soldiers who were attacking civilians in the town, Ali El-Khalaf, a Syrian opposition activist and a relative of al-Harmoush told Channel 4 News.

Soon after that he fled to the Altinozu refugee camp in Turkey, one of six camps along the border housing over seven thousand Syrians fleeing the crackdown.

In recent weeks Lt Col al-Harmoush has openly said that he was forming an opposition army of deserters, The Free Syrian Soldiers. Channel 4 News understands from a source with access to the camp that the group has recruited up to 1600 men, but these claims can not be independently verified as the Turkish authorities do not allow journalists into the camp.

On the 8th of September Harmoush’s home village of Iblin was apparently attacked by the military. According to Ali El-Khalaf, Harmoush’s brother Mohamed was killed along with number of civilians and soldiers also fleeing to Turkey.

Returned to Syria

Just how the opposition figure found himself in the hands of the Syrian regime is unclear. Al-Watan newspaper has reported that al-Harmoush was arrested in the northern Syrian city of Idlib along with a number of wanted Syrians.

“There are two possibly explanations as to what’s happened”, says Ali El-Khalaf.

“He has either been kidnapped by the Syrian authorities or arrested by the Turkish police and handed to the Syrian regime.”

According to Ali, the last time he was seen before his ‘confession’ was on the 29th of August. He left the Altinozo camp after the Turkish police called him by phone requesting that they meet ‘to have a chat’. These meetings happen on a regular basis but this time al-Harmoush didn’t return.

“The Turkish police say, and keep insisting: we don’t know anything about him as he left after 15 minutes” Ali says.

Syrian activist in Turkey accuse the government there of handing him over to the Syrian Secret Police. On Tuesday Syrian Demonstrators in Egypt approached Turkeys Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a state visits shouting: “Erdogan Coward” and “Erdogan, where is Harmoush?”

The government in Turkey has previously said it has no information about Harmoush. Turkish Foreign Ministry officials are currently accompanying the Turkish Prime Minster on a tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and are unavailable for comment.

Turkey ‘not responsible’

However Ryad al-Assad, another senior commander of the Free Syrian Soldiers, says Turkey is not responsible for Harmoush’s disappearance. “We assure our people that the Turkish government has nothing to do with Hussein Harmoush’s arrest”, he says in statement posted on the internet.

This latest development comes as more reports emerge that Syrian security forces have launched a new operation in the North-west of the country. Amateur video released through YouTube purports to show security forces firing from tanks in the town of Idlib. The footage can’t be independently verified.

The UN leader Ban Ki-moon once again voiced his concerns over the “very oppressive handling” of opposition protests, saying today “enough is enough”.

Since protestors began challenging Bashar’s regime in March by calling for political reforms, more than 2,200 civilians have been killed according to the UN.