Last Updated: Thu Jun 09, 2011 21:47 pm (KSA) 18:47 pm (GMT)

More than 2,400 Syrians flee into Turkey in 24 hours to evade crackdown

Children walk beside tents in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi in Hatay province. (File Photo)
Children walk beside tents in a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi in Hatay province. (File Photo)

More than 2,400 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 international concern growing over Syria’s repression of pro-democracy protests, Britain, France, Germany and Portugal have asked the UN Security Council to condemn Mr. Assad.

However, veto-holding Russia has said it opposes any such Council measure. World powers have shown no appetite for any Libya-style military intervention in Syria, which has so far shrugged off sanctions and verbal reprimands.

Residents 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 described 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, according to the reports.

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, giving 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.

Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 15,000 troops had deployed near Jisr Al Shughour.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the number of Syrian refugees crossing the border this week had reached 2,400.

He told reporters at a summit in Abu Dhabi it was time for Syria to act “more decisively” on political reforms proposed by its leader President Assad.

“Syria is causing concern for us,” Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Turkish radio. “We will always keep our doors open to our Syrian brothers and sisters.”

Mr. Assad, 47, has promised reforms, even while cracking down on unrest that has become the gravest threat to his 11-year rule.

“Syria is committed to the missions of reform under the leadership of President Bashar Al Assad and affirms it does not permit any foreign intervention in this regard,” the state news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying in response to critical statements by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe of France.

Among the Syrians in Turkey was a 23-year-old with a bullet wound to the leg. Asking not to be named, he said he was shot 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 barred reporters from the camp in a shady valley, but women could be seen hanging washing, while children played between tents and older men wandered around.

The draft UN 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.

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.

“Russia is against any UN Security Council resolution on Syria,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said, without saying if Moscow would veto the measure.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) decided to report Syria to the Security Council for covert atomic work, a US-led move coinciding with condemnation of Damascus' crackdown on protests.

Russia and China voted against the proposal, probably ruling out any follow-up punitive measures.

Syria’s IAEA envoy Bassam Al Sabbagh called the referral vote “regrettable” but said it would not affect his country's relations with the agency.

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, the late President 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.”

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

The Turkish leader said he had talked to Mr. Assad on Wednesday, “he told me very different things. We receive contradictory intelligence information on the killing of policemen.”

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, protesters angered by the killings burned two buildings used by Assad's Baath Party.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict urged Syria to listen to demonstrators calling for political and economic reform and said it should not respond to the protests with violence.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on Syria to halt its “assault on its own people” and let a fact-finding mission investigate all allegations of killings on both sides.

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