Thousands More Syrians Seek To Enter Turkey

Jun 13, 2011

Thousands of Syrian refugees were massed on Monday along the border, hoping to cross into Turkey to escape a crackdown by elite army troops who retook control of one rebellious town and threatened to widen their assault on anti-government activists.

State media described heavy fighting as troops led by President Bashar Assad's brother regained control of Jisr al-Shughour Sunday, sending in tanks and helicopter gunships after shelling the town. But residents were still terrified; more than 6,000 Syrians have sought sanctuary in Turkey, nearly all of them in the past few days from Idlib province.

Syria's official media reported the discovery of a mass grave in Jisr al-Shughour, a town that has been the center of the protests and mutiny. Government officials say 120 security personnel were killed in the town last week by gunmen in stolen army uniforms.

Reporters, who have been banned from the area for weeks, were allowed in for the first time on Monday to witness the mass grave, but it was not clear who was responsible for the killing — the opposition or the Syrian military.

In a refugee camp inside Turkey, many residents of Jisr al-Shughour have given consistent accounts of mutinous security personnel who were murdered by officers after refusing orders to fire on civilians.

If true, the mutiny would pose one of the most serious threats to the Assad regime since protests against his rule began in mid-March. Assad has made some concessions, but thousands of demonstrators say they will not stop until he leaves power.

The Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents the protests, said government snipers have killed at least 10 people in the past two days in Ariha, a village near Jisr al-Shughour.

More than 1,400 Syrians have died and some 10,000 have been detained in the government crackdown since mid-March, activists say.

Two of the refugees in Turkey said the military is also killing soldiers who refuse orders to fire on protesters.

"Assad's men are killing anyone within the military, police or others who don't obey their orders blindly," a man who gave his name as Abu Ali told The Associated Press. "They are killing those who want freedom."

On Monday, Syria imposed a travel ban on one of the president's cousins, a move that appeared to be an attempt to show Assad is serious about investigating the bloodshed.

The state-run SANA news agency says the ban was imposed on Brig. Gen. Atef Najib, who ran the security department in the southern province of Daraa. The uprising erupted there in mid-March after the arrest of 15 teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti.

Judge Mohammed Deeb al-Muqatran of the Special Judicial Committee said the travel ban is precautionary in order for Najib to be available for questioning.

Al-Muqatran was quoted as saying on Monday that "no one has immunity, whoever he is."

In apparent anticipation of more refugees, workers of the Turkish Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross, began building a fourth tent camp Monday near the border.

Turkish authorities have blocked the media from entering the camps. Turkey appears to be trying to limit publicity directed at the crisis. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who won a landslide victory in Sunday's general elections, has said he would speak to Assad soon.

Turkey and Syria once nearly went to war, but the two countries have cultivated warmer relations in recent years, lifting travel visa requirements for their citizens and promoting business ties.

Includes reporting by NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut and material from The Associated Press.

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