Syria forces kill 2 protesters, swoop on border town

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian security forces shot dead two protesters and wounded scores more Friday, witnesses said, in a widening crackdown on unrest that has sent thousands of civilians fleeing into Turkey this week.

The Syrian army also swept in on the northwest border town of Jisr al-Shughour Friday to seize “armed” opponents, state television said, as protests erupted anew around the country despite Bashar al-Assad’s increasing resort to armed repression.

Residents said government forces killed two protesters in the village of Busra al-Harir in the southern Hauran plain and also fired on thousands defying a heavy security presence in the southern city of Deraa, fount of the three-month-old revolt against President Assad’s authoritarian rule.

“There was a demonstration of 1,000 people when the (security police) fired from their cars,” a resident of Busra al-Harir said, giving the names of the dead as Adnan al-Hariri and Abdelmuttaleb al-Hariri.

However, state television said unidentified gunmen killed a member of the security forces and a civilian in Busra al-Harir.

Syria has barred most independent media from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of the bloodshed.

Witnesses told Reuters by telephone that some of the protesters shot by security forces in Deraa — including two who were hit in the head and chest — were hurriedly carried by youths to a nearby makeshift clinic.

Almost 3,000 Syrian civilians have fled cross the northwest border into Turkey, Turkish officials said, and Jisr al-Shughour largely emptied of people in the face of a looming military assault following clashes earlier this week.

A Turkish newspaper said Ankara was looking into creating a buffer zone along the border as a contingency if hundreds of thousands of Syrians wound up fleeing the military campaign to stamp out protests against 41 years of Assad family rule.

Syrian authorities said that “armed gangs” killed more than 120 security personnel in Jisr al-Shughour, a town of 50,000.

But rights campaigners said scores of civilians were killed after some security forces refused to fire at protesters and fighting broke out between loyalist and mutinous soldiers.

Witnesses and activists said demonstrations demanding the “downfall of the regime” and chanting slogans in support of compatriots in Jisr al-Shughour broke out in the oil-producing eastern province of Deir al-Zor, the central cities of Hama and Homs, the main Mediterranean port of Latakia and the Tabaqa region on the Euphrates River in Raqqa province.

Protests were also reported in several Damascus suburbs and the Midan district of the capital, Syria’s second largest city Aleppo and Maarat al-Numan near Jisr al-Shughour, but their size was not immediately clear.

Arab satellite broadcaster al Jazeera aired a video which showed students at what looked like a night-time demonstration at Aleppo University, chanting, “People want the downfall of the regime.” Aleppo has been little touched by protests so far.

Rights groups say over 1,100 civilians have been killed since March in the anti-Assad revolt. Fifty-seven wounded Syrians from the Jisr al-Shughour area were receiving hospital treatment in Turkey, state-run Anatolian news agency said.

“Our correspondent in Jisr al-Shughour told us now that in response to people’s calls, units from the Syrian Arabic Army started its duties in Jisr al-Shughour … to arrest armed members,” a state television announcer said.

Residents said troops and armored vehicles had stormed the village of Sarmaniya, 10 km (six miles) south of Jisr al-Shughour, and cut off the region’s communications.

“They began as usual by firing heavy machineguns into the village. But the people of Sarmaniya had mostly left. Hundreds of troops and security forces have defected in the last several days. They (pro-Assad forces) might be thinking that they will find some in Sarmaniya,” said the witness, who was speaking by phone from the outskirts of Jisr al-Shughour.

REPORT OF DEFECTING SOLDIERS

Human rights activists aired a YouTube video purporting to be from Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Armoush saying he had defected with several soldiers to “join the ranks of the masses demanding freedom and democracy.

“We had sworn in the armed forces to direct our fire at the enemy and not on our own defenseless people. Our duty is to protect citizens and not to kill them,” he said in the video, whose authenticity could not be immediately verified.

Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said residents in Jisr al-Shughour told him the army was still advancing toward the town. “They can hear gunfire and so far we do not have any casualty reports,” he told Reuters.

Inhabitants said at least 15,000 troops along with some 40 tanks and troop carriers had deployed near Jisr al-Shughour, and that the area had largely emptied of civilians.

“Jisr al-Shughour is practically empty. People were not going to sit and be slaughtered like lambs,” said one refugee who crossed Wednesday and who gave his name as Mohammad.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged Syria to allow its aid workers wider access to the civilian population without further delay, including people who have been wounded or detained in the military clampdown on public dissent.

The latest reports of Assad’s military campaign against protesters intensified international concerns over his handling of popular pressure for democratization inspired by uprisings against entrenched autocrats elsewhere in the Arab world.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Friday the legitimacy of Assad’s rule was open to question. “I would say the slaughter of innocent lives in Syria should be a problem and a concern for everybody,” Gates told a seminar in Brussels.

“Whether Assad still has the legitimacy to govern his own country, I think is a question everyone needs to consider.”

The top U.N. human rights official, Navi Pillay, said on Thursday that more than 1,100 people may have been killed and up to 10,000 detained since March in protests against Assad’s rule, and urged Syria to halt its “assault on its own people.”

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

World powers have shown no appetite for any Libya-style military intervention in Syria because it sits on a major fault line of Middle East conflict, allied with Iran against nearby Israel. The Syrian leadership has shrugged off mild punitive sanctions imposed so far, and verbal reprimands from abroad.

WOUNDED SYRIANS ON TURKISH SIDE OF BORDER

On the Turkish side of the frontier Friday, a Reuters news team saw three Syrians lying wounded on the ground as ambulances arrived to collect them. Turkish minibuses were collecting other Syrians and taking them to a nearby camp.

Anatolian news agency said the number of Syrians seeking refuge across the border had reached 2,792, with more crossing the hilly, wooded frontier Friday.

“Foreign Ministry officials said that among scenarios that had been discussed was the creation of a buffer zone if hundreds of thousands want to seek refuge in Turkey,” the Turkish daily Hurriyet reported Friday.

However, this was not seen as a near-term prospect. Foreign Ministry officials were not immediately available to comment.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan reiterated Thursday that Turkey would keep its gates open to people from Syria. But he complained that Damascus was taking the issue “very lightly” and Ankara could not defend its “inhumane” reply to the unrest.

“We can’t close our door to those people who run away for their lives, but how long is it going to be like this?” Erdogan told a Turkish TV station. “… Turkey cannot stand up for Syria in the face of all this. We still have relatives there.”

At the Yayladagi refugee camp, set in a scenic valley close to the Syrian border, children played football as families sat talking under trees sheltering them from the baking Middle East summer sun. Police kept journalists away from the camp.

Assad, 45, has promised reforms, even while cracking down on unrest posing the gravest threat to his authoritarian rule.

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson, Ece Toksabay and Tulay Karadeniz in Turkish border area, Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, David Brunnstrom in Brussels; editing by Mark Heinrich)