Syrians flee to Turkey while West mulls sanctions

Erdogan chides Assad, says door open to refugees; Tanks, troops reportedly heading north to Homs.

By OREN KESSLER, REUTERS
June 9, 2011 00:31
Syrian President Bashar Assad

assad speech 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Turkey threw open its borders to anxious Syrian refugees on Wednesday and urged its government to curb the violence against civilians after thousands abandoned a town near the Turkish frontier in fear of a military assault.

Britain and France prepared to ask the UN Security Council to condemn Syrian President Bashar Assad, though there seems to be no appetite for a Libya-style military intervention.

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Assad’s government has accused armed bands of killing scores of its security men in the northwestern town of Jisr al- Shughour and vowed to send in the army to carry out its “national duty to restore security” there. Troops with tanks have been deployed near the town, prompting many of its 50,000 people to flee.

Ankara’s state-run media reported that about 170 Syrians had crossed the Turkish border Wednesday. Turkish villagers said they saw Turkish troops and ambulances pick up Syrians who crossed earlier in the day, and some of the wounded were taken to hospitals.

Reuters journalists in Turkey saw tents on the Syrian side of the border. Adding the new arrivals to earlier figures from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, nearly 500 Syrians have crossed the frontier since March.

“We are monitoring developments in Syria with concern,” said Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long sought warm relations with Assad. “Syria should change its attitude toward civilians and should take its attitude to a more tolerant level. It is out of the question for Turkey to close its doors to refugees coming from Syria.”

The troop movements, after the government reported the loss of more than 120 men in what anti- Assad activists said was fighting among soldiers, have raised fears that violence could move to a new level. Rights groups say over 1,100 civilians have been killed since March in protests against 41 years of Assad family rule.

In Jisr al-Shughour, people have long memories of a mass killing in 1980, under Assad’s father. That proved to be a precursor to the suppression of an armed Islamist revolt in the city of Hama, in which many thousands were killed in 1982.

France and Britain were expected to put forward a UN Security Council resolution later on Wednesday condemning Assad’s crackdown, British Prime Minister David Cameron said.

“And if anyone votes against that resolution or tries to veto it, that should be on their conscience,” Cameron said, in a pointed reference to efforts to secure Russian backing for it.

The draft resolution condemns the repression and demands humanitarian access, Cameron said in London. But it was unclear how Russia, which holds a veto, would vote. Citing NATO’s inconclusive bombing of Tripoli in Libya, Moscow says it will not back intervention against Syria in the Security Council.

The draft resolution formulated on Wednesday urges countries not to supply weapons to Damascus but would not provide for an arms embargo or other punitive measures.

One diplomat said the amendments attempted to make it look less like a prelude to further measures, like the military action that NATO has conducted in Libya, which Moscow has opposed.

At the same time, a senior European diplomat told reporters in Washington that European Union nations are preparing a third round of sanctions against Syria that targets Syrian companies.

At Jisr al-Shughour, residents have said since Tuesday that they were taking cover and bracing for attacks.

Residents said about 40 tanks and armored vehicles were about 7 km. from Jisr al-Shughour, which was now mostly empty, save for youth protesters.

Ali Haj Ibrahim said his son Bilal, who had volunteered to help the wounded over the weekend, was killed by security forces on Sunday on the outskirts of the town. Two machine gun rounds tore through his 26-year-old son’s chest and left shoulder.

“We are not taking condolences.

We consider his martyrdom a wedding feast for the defense of freedom,” he told Reuters.

A witness in Damascus said he saw 40 tanks and armored vehicles, along with trucks, able to carry about 400 troops heading north on Tuesday on a highway that leads to the major cities of Homs and Hama. Rights activists said tanks had entered restive districts of Homs.

Despite enthusiasm for prodemocracy movements that have unseated presidents in Tunisia and Egypt, few Western leaders – let alone their autocratic Arab partners – have shown a will to intervene in Syria, an Iranian ally whose volatile mix of ethnic and religious groups sits astride a web of regional conflicts.

“Assad is finished, but we have to see how this regime will crumble,” said Burhan Ghalyoun, an academic at the Sorbonne in Paris who supports the Syrian opposition.

“Is it going to crumble from the inside, through growing demonstrations, or will the world unite, demand that the killing ends and threaten intervention?” Ghalyoun asked.

Activists have reported incidents of soldiers who have defected from the army because they could no longer bear to open fire on protesters, but those accounts have been difficult to verify.

In a video distributed over the Internet by anti-government activists, a man presented as a soldier from the province around Jisr al-Shughour said, “Our mission was to suppress the protesters.

The protests were peaceful.

They weren’t carrying weapons.

They were only calling for freedom.

“I tell them [soldiers] to leave the Syrian Arab army because it’s no longer an army that protects homes, but one that destroys homes,” the soldier, named as Mustafa Ahmed Moussa, said on a video dated Monday.

Al-Jazeera posted two clips on its website Wednesday of members of Syria’s security forces who claim to have defected after receiving orders to shoot on unarmed protesters. One said other security forces threatened to shoot any soldier who disobeyed orders to shoot.


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