Syrian forces try to stem exodus of refugees to Turkey

Rights activists accuse pro-government forces of attacking people helping refugees as they try to escape from widening military assault.

By REUTERS
June 19, 2011 19:58
2 minute read.
Syrian refugee camp in Turkey

Syrian refugee camp Turkey 311. (photo credit: Reuters)

AMMAN - Syrian forces swept through a northwestern border region on Sunday to stem an exodus of refugees to Turkey that is raising international pressure on President Bashar Assad, witnesses and a rights activist said.

Syrian human rights campaigner Ammara Qurabi also accused pro-government forces of attacking people who were helping the refugees as they tried to escape from a widening military assault to crush protests against Assad's autocratic rule.

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The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross was due in Damascus on Sunday to discuss expanding its relief effort with Syrian officials.

The latest assault followed the biggest protests across Syria on Friday in three months of anti-Assad unrest, despite his clampdown on public dissent. Security forces shot dead up to 19 protesters on Friday, rights campaigners said.

Qurabi said troops and gunmen loyal to Assad had blocked roads leading to the Turkish frontier in the rich arable region of Jisr al-Shughour, leaving thousands stranded.

"The Syrian army has spread around the border area to prevent frightened residents from fleeing across the border to Turkey," he told Reuters.

People trying to help had come under attack around the small town of Bdama near the Turkish border which Syrian troops and gunmen loyal to Assad stormed on Saturday, burning houses and arresting dozens, witnesses said.

"Militiamen close to the regime are attacking people in Bdama and the surrounding areas who are trying to deliver relief and food to thousands of refugees stuck along the border and trying to flee," said Qurabi.

Qurabi's comments could not be independently confirmed, but a local resident backed up his account.

"There are roadblocks everywhere in Bdama to prevent people from fleeing but villagers are finding other routes through valleys to escape to the Turkish border," said Omar, a farmer from Bdama who managed to reach the border area.

Authorities blame the violence on armed groups and Islamists, backed by foreign powers. Syria has barred most international journalists, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.

Witnesses said pro-Assad forces were firing randomly, ransacking houses and burning crops in Jisr al-Shughour, an area known for its apple groves, olive trees and wheat.

"We received no bread today. There was one bakery operating in Bdama but it has been forced to shut. The 'shabbiha' (Assad's gunmen) are shooting randomly," one refugee, a carpenter who gave his name as Hammoud, told Reuters by telephone.

"One man in Bdama was injured today and we managed to smuggle him to hospital in Turkey. But many fear getting shot if they attempt to cross the border," the refugee added.

Bdama is one of the nerve centres providing food and supplies to several thousand other Syrians who have escaped the violence from frontier villages but chose to take shelter in fields on the Syrian side of the boundary.

The number of refugees who have crossed into Turkey from Syria has reached 10,114, and another 10,000 are sheltering by the border just inside Syria, according to Turkish officials.

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