Syrian forces attack town, refugees flee to Turkey

State TV in Syria reports two soldiers killed, several gunmen arrested; residents say helicopters, tanks shell Jisr al-Shughour; refugees fleeing to Turkey claim earlier deaths in northern town were of mutinous soldiers.

Syrian soldiers leaving Deraa 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian soldiers leaving Deraa 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
AMMAN - Syrian state television reported heavy clashes between army troops and gunmen in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday, and said a large number of people had been arrested.
"Heavy confrontations are raging between army units and members of armed organizations taking up positions in the surroundings of Jisr al-Shughour and inside it," it said.
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"Two members of the armed organizations were killed, large numbers of them arrested, and lethal weapons in their possession were seized," it said, adding that army units had defused bombs and explosive charges planted by gunmen on the bridges and roads of the town.
Syria has banned most foreign correspondents from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.
Earlier reports by residents said Syrian tanks and helicopters shelled and machinegunned Jisr al-Shughour.
Forces commanded by Assad's brother Maher stormed the town the south, residents said, copying tactics used in other cities and towns to suppress street protests demanding political freedom and an end to Assad's autocratic rule.
"They are using up to 150 tanks and armored vehicles. Jisr al-Shughour is small and there is not even space to park all this armor. The shelling is nonstop now. Two helicopters are flying overhead and firing their machineguns," one resident told Reuters, speaking from a hill overlooking the town.
"Most people have escaped towards Turkey. I heard that a small group of army defectors may have remained because they felt that they had to defend the honor of Jisr al-Shughour, but they must be martyrs by now," he said over the phone, the sound of shelling audible in the background.
"Tanks came from the south after shelling randomly and sending volleys of machinegun fire all over the town. People are still fleeing north," another resident told Reuters.
There had been large demonstrations in the strategic town, built among hills on the road between Syria's second city Aleppo and the main port of Latakia.
The Syrian government said "armed gangs" killed more than 120 security personnel last week in the town of 50,000, some 40 kms (25 miles) from the Turkish border. Refugees and rights groups said the deaths were of mutinous soldiers, shot for refusing to fire on civilians.
Earlier Sunday, reports emerged that Syrian soldiers were told to fire indiscriminately at civilians and raped Syrian women in front of their husbands.
Soldiers told AFP of instances of rape and said
"when the soldiers do not shoot, they shoot the soldiers down."
Some soldiers also claimed that the Assad regime has deployed snipers from the police or the Hezbollah militia.
Others confirmed indiscriminate killing by Assad's forces. Bassam, a tiler, fled to Turkey as troops were closing in on his home town. He showed mobile phone camera footage of a dead man, between 18 and 25 years old, with a bullet wound in his leg, and a large exit wound in his stomach. He lay on a bloodied cloth.
Another picture showed a young man who had been shot in the head. He said the two were killed just outside Jisr al-Shughour by troops under the command of Maher.
"There are only a few people left. I escaped on my motorcycle through dirt tracks in the hills," he told Reuters.