Syrian refugees in Turkish camp 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Syrian soldiers, backed by tanks and helicopters, launched an assault on the northwestern town of Jisr al- Shughour on Sunday, shelling and machine-gunning the town that had been the sight of fighting that the Assad regime has said left 120 state security officers dead last week.
More than 5,000 Syrian refugees have crossed into southern Turkey to flee from the fighting, and another 10,000 are taking shelter near the border, ready to cross it if need be, Reuters reported.
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Jisr al-Shughour has been encircled by large numbers of troops and armored units since last week. The Syrian Arab News Agency said on Sunday that the town was the site of fierce clashes between the army and “armed groups,” and that locals “greeted the army with flowers and rice.”
The agency further claimed that troops had located a mass grave “containing bodies of security forces personnel, who were killed by the armed terrorist groups in Jisr al-Shughour,” and that many of the bodies had been mutilated.
“The official version is improbable. Most people had left Jisr al-Shughour after seeing the regime’s scorched earth policy, shelling and the heavy use of armor in the valley,” an unnamed senior Western diplomat in Damascus was quoted as saying by Reuters.
“The refugee exodus into Turkey is continuing and the numbers are higher than those officially counted so far,” the diplomat continued.
Videos released online on Sunday showed a ghost town and The Associated Press, which managed to embed a reporter with advancing Syrian troops, reported that the army had retaken the town after gunfights with army deserters who had sided with the anti-regime protesters.
The AP correspondent also reported seeing at least four bodies of Syrian soldiers who had been beheaded or showed signs of being struck in the head by an ax.
Syria’s near-total ban on foreign journalists has made it very difficult to confirm reports, though Turkish authorities confirmed on Saturday that more than 4,300 Syrian refugees had fled into southern Turkey where they are staying in hastily-built refugee camps.
The Istanbul-based Hurriyet newspaper said on Sunday that almost 6,000 additional Syrian civilians were waiting to enter Turkey .
International Committee of the Red Cross spokesman Hicham Hassan, whose organization is not operating in southern Turkey, told the BBC that “no one is aware of the real magnitude of the [Syrian refugee] problem, and this is a big issue, because it does not allow us to know the size of the problem and then to act accordingly.”
Turkey, which held national elections on Sunday in which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK party is expected to gain a convincing victory, has criticized Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of force against protesters and has vowed to provide assistance to those fleeing the violence, but has held back from calling for Assad to step down from power.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a call on Sunday for the United Nations to condemn the violence meted out by Syrian troops against their fellow countrymen.
“We will continue to work with our international partners, including in the UN, to condemn the repression in Syria and call for the Syrian government to meet their people’s legitimate demands,” he said.
Hague said that a UN resolution against Syria was “on a knife’s edge,” but that there was no chance that the UN would authorize any sort of military action like that in Libya.
He also accused Iran of helping Syria put down the popular revolt that broke out in March, saying Syria is “undoubtedly being assisted by the Iranian government.”
France said on Sunday it was doing what it could to secure a UN response to the increasingly brutal repression.
“France is continuing its efforts with its partners in the international community to see that the United Nations Security Council takes responsibility and speaks out without delay on the Syrian crisis and regional consequences,” the Foreign Ministry in Paris said in a statement.
“France strongly condemns the ever-more brutal repression in Syria, including the use of heavy weapons in Jisr al-Shughour, which many civilians are fleeing to seek refuge in Turkey. It must stop,” the statement read.
Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Syria of “engaging in horrific, revolting attacks on its own people,” during an interview with television channel Africa 360.