Syrians flee into Turkey to evade crackdown

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) – More than 1,500 Syrians have fled to Turkey to escape a feared army crackdown, officials said on Thursday, in another sign that President Bashar al-Assad’s struggle with protesters is disturbing Syria’s neighbors.

With Western public opinion startled by the bloodshed that has met Syrians’ efforts to emulate other Arabs in casting off autocratic rule, Britain and France have asked the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad — though world powers have shown no appetite for any Libya-style military intervention.

Residents in the area said about 40 tanks and troop carriers had deployed about 7 km (4 miles) from Jisr al-Shughour, a northwestern town of 50,000 where authorities say “armed gangs” killed more than 120 security personnel earlier this week.

Other accounts speak of a mutiny among troops who refused to fire on civilians after a pro-democracy rally in the town on Friday. Loyalist military units then attacked the mutineers.

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

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

“Demonstrations in the villages are still going on. Women and children are carrying flowers and shouting ‘people want the downfall of the regime’,” he said.

A spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency said 1,577 Syrians had arrived in Turkey in the last 24 hours and were sheltering in a tent encampment just north of the border at Yayladagi.

Thousands more people from Jisr al-Shughour have fled to villages on the Syrian side of the border, residents say.


“Syria is causing concern for us,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Turkish radio, putting the number of refugees at 1,200 since Wednesday. “We will always keep our doors open to our Syrian brothers and sisters.”

Among the refugees in Turkey was a 23-year-old Syrian being treated for a bullet wound to the leg. He said he was attacked by militiamen, known as shabbiha, from Assad’s minority Alawite sect that has dominated the Sunni majority for four decades.

“We were leaving the mosque after Friday prayers to start protesting and then the shabbiha … attacked us,” he said.

Turkish police kept journalists away from the refugee camp, nestled under mountains in a tree-shaded valley, but women could be seen hanging up washing, while children played between tents and older men wandered around.

The draft U.N. resolution proposed by Britain, France, Germany and Portugal condemns the repression and demands humanitarian access. “The world cannot be silent when every day people in Syria, who are doing nothing but standing up for their legitimate human and civil rights, are being killed and tortured,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said.

“Germany and its partners are requesting from the Security Council … a strong signal to the Syrian leadership to stop the use of force against its own people immediately.”

But Russia, an old ally of Syria since Cold War times, has made clear it dislikes the idea of Council involvement, saying it could help to destabilize a strategic Middle Eastern country.

Contrasting the situation with that in Libya, where leader Muammar Gaddafi has long been a marginal figure for fellow Arabs, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “In Syria, frankly there isn’t the same support for military intervention.

“There is still a small but very residual hope now that President Assad will lead his country on a path of reform,” Blair, an international envoy in the Middle East, told the BBC.

Assad, 45, has shrugged off Western sanctions and charges he is losing legitimacy. He has persisted with quelling unrest that has become the gravest challenge to his 11-year rule.

Rights groups say more than 1,100 civilians have been killed since March in protests against 41 years of Assad family rule.

Syrian authorities say more than 200 security personnel have also been killed in the unrest.


Activists say the lack of effective international action to stop the killings has prompted some protesters to consider using weapons to defend themselves. In Jisr al-Shughour, people recall a mass killing in 1980, under Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad.

Two years after that, many thousands were killed in the city of Hama when the elder Assad crushed an armed Islamist revolt.

Speaking of the readiness of some opposition groups to take up arms, one activist who spoke anonymously said: “This thinking is especially prevalent in Hama. People are saying we are not going to let them massacre us as they did in 1982.”

Erdogan has said Turkey, a regional power that had developed close ties with Syria, cannot accept “another Hama.”

“I spoke to Assad a day ago,” Erdogan said on Thursday. “He told me very different things. We receive contradictory intelligence information on the killing of policemen. We are watching with concern.”

Although the world attention is focused on Jisr al-Shughour, disturbances have continued elsewhere.

Troops patrolled the central city of Homs, a day after security forces shot dead a civilian in a crowd of 5,000 showing solidarity with Jisr al-Shughour, an activist group said.

In Hama, where 70 people were reported killed in protests on Friday, demonstrators carried banners reading “We will continue to respond to your bullets with flowers.”

In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, demonstrators angered by the killings have burned two buildings used by Assad’s Baath Party.

On Wednesday security forces removed a five-meter stone statue of Hafez al-Assad from a main square of the city to prevent protesters from smashing it, as they have done with other statues and portraits of Assad and his son.

The top U.N. human rights official called on Syria to halt its “assault on its own people.” Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, also urged Damascus to allow her fact-finding mission into Syria to investigate all allegations, including the killing of 120 members of the security forces.

“It is utterly deplorable for any government to attempt to bludgeon its population into submission, using tanks, artillery and snipers,” she said in a statement.

(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson in Guvecci, Turkey, Yara Bayoumy in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Keith Weir in London, Annika Breidthardt in Berlin and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Alistair Lyon)