At least 28 people have been killed in fresh clashes in Syria between security forces and protesters, activists say. They say tanks and helicopter gunships opened fire on crowds in the northern town of Maarat al-Numan, leaving several protesters dead. The violence came as government forces moved on the nearby town of Jisr al-Shughour where the government said 120 security personnel had been killed.
Hundreds of civilians have fled north into Turkey to escape the assault.
Opposition activists told the BBC that the army was adopting a “scorched earth policy” around Jisr al-Shughour, with helicopter gunships and tanks firing into the town as advancing troops bulldozed homes and torched crops and fields. The Syrian government has not commented on the claim.
Anti-government activists said about 15 people died in the northern province of Idlib, most of them in Maarat al-Numan where tanks and helicopters fired on protesters. Correspondents say it is the first reported use of air power to quell protests in Syria’s three-month uprising.
Syrian state TV reported that armed gangs had attacked police stations in the town. A Syrian opposition figure told the Associated Press news agency by telephone that thousands of protesters had overwhelmed security officers and set light to a courthouse and a police station in the town.
Syria has prevented foreign journalists from entering the country, making it difficult to verify reports from there.
Another five anti-government protesters were killed in the coastal city of Latakia, according to activist sources. Elsewhere in Syria, two people were reported killed by security forces in southern Deraa province and another four in the Qaboun district of the capital, Damascus.
Since March, mass protests against the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have become a regular event following Friday prayers. Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have died as the government tries to suppress dissent, most of them unarmed civilians. The government refutes the figures and says about 500 security forces have died.
With the unrest showing no sign of abating, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called for immediate access to those affected by the violence and those arrested or detained.
The town of Jisr al-Shughour was said to be all but deserted as troops moved in on Friday. Witnesses reported explosions coming from near the town. The crackdown had been long expected. The Syrian government blamed armed groups for the deaths of 120 security personnel in the town earlier in the week, although there were reports of a mutiny among security forces. Syrian state TV said armed gangs had prepared defences and set fire to crops and trees around Jisr al-Shughour in order to show the army’s advances. State TV has been broadcasting images of what it says are soldiers and police shot dead in the town.
The government says local residents requested the army’s intervention to restore peace and quiet.
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-Shughour. The group reported that the army had begun shelling the towns of Maaret Al-Noman and Jarjanaz, 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. (New York Times)
Turkey – which shares a long border with northern Syria – says more than 2,000 Syrians have crossed over, seeking refuge from the expected retaliation on Jisr al-Shughour. The city has a population of about 50,000. It is not clear how many other residents have fled to other locations within Syria.
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 at everyone who comes along their way. It is terrible there.” (New York Times)
A 40-year-old man who had fled across the border into Turkey from Jisr al-Shughour with a bullet still in his thigh also described mutiny in Syrian ranks. “Some of the security forces defected and there were some in the army who refused the orders of their superiors,” he said. They were firing on each other.” (Reuters)
Turkish PM Recap Tayyip Erdogan has previously been reluctant to criticize Syria, but in an interview quoted by Anatolia news agency, he said the Assad regime was committing “atrocities” against anti-government demonstrators. “They are not acting in a human manner. This is savagery,” he said in a TV interview on Thursday. (BBC)
He accused Assad of taking the situation “too lightly” and harshly criticized the president’s younger brother, Maher, who is believed to command some troops in the Jisr al-Shughour operation. Maher Assad is also in charge of the elite Republican Guard, whose job is to protect the government. “I say this clearly and openly, from a humanitarian point of view, his brother is not behaving in a humane manner. And he is chasing after savagery,” Erdogan said. The interview was posted on the Internet. (CBC) The comments reflected Ankara’s frustration with Syria after weeks of attempts by Turkish officials to coax Syrian authorities into implementing democratic reforms.
Officials said the Turkish Red Crescent was setting up two new camps near the border, in addition to the one where refugees have already been placed.
UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova on Friday weighed in on the violence and the clampdown on citizens’ access to “communication and information.” “Reports coming from Syria are alarming,” Bokova said. “The rights of citizens must be respected, as must the rights and security of journalists. This includes the right to freedom of expression, the need to access information and the ability to communicate. The decision to shut down Internet access and cell phone networks, to block broadcasters and prevent journalists from doing their job is not acceptable.” (CNN) Mentioning a promised amnesty and call for national dialogue by the Syrian authorities, Bokova urged “authorities to immediately restore Internet and cell phone services for citizens, to lift restrictions on the media and to prevent acts of aggression against journalists, so that they can report freely on events as is their duty.” (CNN)