Saturday, June 11, 2011

Syrian Forces Storm Into Restive Town Near Turkey


The New York Times

June 10, 2011

Syrian Forces Storm Into Restive Town Near Turkey


GUVECCI, Turkey —Backed by tanks and helicopters, Syrian forces swept into the restive northern town of Jisr al-Shoughour late Friday, pressing an offensive against a town that had offered the stiffest challenge yet to four decades of Assad family rule.

Syrian state television reported that troops began arresting members of “armed organizations,” but gave no indication whether there was any fighting taking place. Frightened residents who fled the town earlier in the day, with more than 1,000 crossing into Turkey, said those who remained behind— which they numbered at 5,000 from a population of more than 50,000, — were armed and prepared to fight, raising the prospect of an uneven battle.

The Syrian forces stormed into the town after a daylong drive north in which they burned fields and fired on civilians as they closed in, according to local residents reached by phone. Only days earlier, the Syrian government said that 120 soldiers and police officers were killed in the town, which would represent the worst attack on government forces since popular protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad began in mid-March.

Syrian authorities were especially rattled when, according to reports by townspeople, troops began to defect and local residents took up arms. It was unclear if some of the troops who might have defected remained in the town along with armed residents.

The Local Coordinating Committees in Syria, an activist coalition, said that at least 22 people died in clashes across the country on Friday, more than half killed in the northwestern towns around Jisr al-Shoughour.

The group reported that the army had begun shelling the towns of Maaret Al-Noman and Jarjanaz, about 25 miles from Jisr al-Shoughour.

It also said there was heavy gunfire in Al Sarmaneyah, a village five miles from the town, as residents burned tires in the street to slow the advance of Syrian troops.

“The army is invading the villages and burning the surrounding farms and killing people randomly,” said the group’s spokesman, Hozan, who declined to give his full name for fear of government retribution.

A 60-year-old Syrian man at the refugee camp in Yayladagi, on the Turkish side of the border, said other refugees in the camp had spoken by telephone with relatives in the villages who gave similar reports.

“They are talking about the army moving with all kinds of armed vehicles and shooting randomly” with tanks and heavy weapons, he said. “The army passed through Al Sarmaneyah and troops are shooting everyone who comes along their way. It is terrible there.”

Jisr al-Shoughour has taken on critical importance for both the Syrian government and its opponents because of the reports of dozens of defections, activists said. The government has been counting on the loyalty of its troops to quell the unrest.

For days, activists have been saying soldiers there joined the opposition, after refusing to fire on civilian demonstrators. The government has steadfastly denied the reports.

The struggle to control the narrative of what happened in the town early this week continued Friday. Late in the day, the official news agency SANA posted reports under a rubric, “The Reality of Events,” casting doubt on activists’ reports of defections. It included an interview with a white-haired man who claimed that he had been offered money to pose as a deserting general and with two men who said they had been reported to have been killed by fellow security officers.

Reports from Jisr al-Shoughour, which remained without electricity, water and Internet access, became increasingly difficult to confirm and even many cellphones and satellite phones seemed not to be working Friday.

Fadi, 27, a restaurant worker reached by phone late Friday evening as he fled Jisr al-Shoughour, said that the northern part of the city was being attacked by helicopter.

“Machine guns were being fired, and no one was spared,” Fadi said.

By encircling Jisr al-Shoughour, Syria appears to be following the repressive strategy it has repeatedly deployed during the unrest challenging the government of President Assad.

But analysts said Jisr al-Shoughour, one of the Syrian towns that bore the brunt of the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood during the early 1980s, is an area that has traditionally supported political Islam and is most likely hostile to the government. Its history also suggests the government’s reports of “armed groups” may be credible.

It is also unclear where the residents of Jisr al-Shoughour are getting weapons, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They’re either coming from across the border, from Turkey, which the Turks are insisting is not happening,” Mr. Tabler said. “Or they’ve been stashed for a long time, waiting for a time like this.”

Previous efforts to pacify cities by cutting them off and eventually sending in tanks have so far faltered. On Friday, protesters in Homs and Dara’a — which had been besieged by troops in recent weeks — returned to the streets after noon prayers.

Activists reported similar demonstrations in Talkalakh, Aleppo, and in the suburbs of Damascus, the capital.

The Syrian government responded quickly and violently Friday, according to witnesses. In the Damascus suburb Qaboun, security forces closed the main mosque in an apparent attempt to head off protests there. The measure angered local residents, many of whom prayed nearby before returning to the main mosque to protest, and Syrian state television reported clashes between security forces and protesters.

One of the protesters, Hassan, 22, said hundreds of soldiers and security officers faced off against more than 1,000 protesters in Qaboun before opening fire. “They shot us and 3 or 4 were killed and 30 wounded,” he said, adding, “They want to finish us off, but they won’t be able to.”

In Homs, a resident reached by telephone said, “There’s been a curfew since 7 p.m.; the army was going around with their speakers asking residents to stay home.” Asking to be identified only as Mohammed, he said, “Gunfire started from 9 a.m. and has gone on until now. Tanks are everywhere inside the neighborhoods and military forces are using cars and Mitsubishi pickups. They put machine guns in the cars’ trunks and are shooting everywhere.”

There was also a heavy security presence in the provincial capital, Idlib City, which was also surrounded by checkpoints.

More than 1,100 people have been killed, and “10,000 or more” detained since the unrest began, Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said Thursday.

Speaking to reporters Friday at the Yayladagi refugee camp in Turkey, the Turkish justice minister, Sadullah Ergin, repeated a call for Syria to stop the violence against civilians. Asked if Turkey would participate in any international military intervention in Syria, Mr. Ergin said, “We don’t even want to consider that possibility.”

Sebnem Arsu reported from Guvecci, Turkey, and Liam Stack from Cairo. Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon, Katherine Zoepf and J. David Goodman from New York, Issa Awdat from Guvecci, and an employee of The New York Times in Damascus, Syria.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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