Syrian army begins operations in northern town while citizens brace for Friday protests

Reuters, AP and AFP, Friday 10 Jun 2011

Protesters call for 'Friday of the Tribes' in Syria, while refugees flee to Turkey due to a major army operation in northern towns

Syrian refugee children pose at a refugee camp in the Turkish border town of Yayladagi in Hatay province, Thursday, (Reuters).

The Syrian army began a military operation in a restive town near the Turkish border, state television said on Friday, as the country braced for more violent protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian government said earlier that "armed gangs" killed more than 120 security personnel in Jisr al-Shughur, a town of 50,000, earlier this week. Activists spoke of a mutiny by some security forces.

"Our correspondent in Jisr al-Shughur told us now that in response to people's calls, units from the Syrian Arabic Army started its duties in Jisr al-Shughur ... to arrest armed members," the television said.

Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said residents in the northwestern town told him the army was still advancing towards the town. "They can hear gunfire and so far we do not have any casualty reports," he told Reuters.

A man in the town said the few remaining residents were collecting car and truck tires to set them on fire in an attempt to try to block the advance of the army.

He said by telephone to an AP reporter in Beirut that a military helicopter had flown over the area Thursday night, firing flares on a possible reconnaissance mission. The resident said tanks entered the village of Sirmaniyeh, five miles (12 kilometers) from Jisr al-Shughur and were headed there.

Eyewitness reports said the military convoy heading to Jisr al-Shughur had left the city of Aleppo along the main Aleppo-Idlib highway and one demonstrator was killed as he, with others, threw stones at the convoy.

At least 60 transporters carrying tanks and armoured vehicles, plus more than 10 lorries packed with soldiers, were seen on the route.

Pro-democracy activists have vowed to stage more protests Friday against President Bashar al-Assad, as his regime comes under mounting international pressure over accusations of massacres.

The Syrian opposition on Thursday urged renewed demonstrations under the slogan "Friday of the Tribes", using a Facebook page to spread their call.

Hundreds of people meanwhile were fleeing Jisr al-Shughur in northwest Syria across the border to Turkey, after reports that a convoy of troops and tanks was converging on the flashpoint town.

The number of Syrians who have fled to Turkey has risen to 2,500, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Thursday.

After pouring in through openings in barbed wire fences or unguarded stretches of the border, several dozen refugees were hospitalised with injuries reportedly sustained during security crackdowns.

Some of them alleged that Iranian forces in black uniforms had helped crush the pro-democracy protests.

"There were police officers in plain clothes, but also Iranian soldiers," said Mustafa, one of dozens of young Syrian men being treated for gunshot wounds in Turkish hospitals.

"We asked them not to shoot but they did not speak Arabic," said the 23-year-old salesman, shot in the leg and arm on May 20 when security forces fired on demonstrators in the northwestern city of Idlib.

"They had beards. Wearing a beard is forbidden in the Syrian army," he said.

Britain, meanwhile, said it stood by allegations that Iran was helping Syria crush the protests, after the British envoy in Tehran was summoned to the foreign ministry over the claims.

Adding to pressure on Damascus, the UN atomic watchdog voted on Thursday to report Syria to the UN Security Council in New York over allegations it built an undeclared nuclear reactor that was then destroyed by Israeli bombs.

At a closed-door meeting in Vienna of the International Atomic Energy Agency, most countries backed a resolution proposed by the United States, diplomats at the meeting said.

Russia and China, among the countries which voted against, said in statements earlier they saw no reason for such action.
But the US hailed the IAEA's "significant" decision.

"Syria has stonewalled and obstructed the efforts of the IAEA to investigate the nuclear reactor for years," White House spokesman Jay Carney said.

At the UN Security Council, Western powers have begun debating a draft resolution put forward by Britain and France demanding an end to the violence and an arms embargo on Syria.

"The attitude of Syria is unacceptable," French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Thursday, at an international meeting in Abu Dhabi on the Libya conflict.

"One cannot continue massacring the civilian population under the pretext that this population aspires to have more freedom and democracy," Juppe told AFP.

Russia, long considered an ally of Damascus as well as a major arms supplier, has made it clear it opposes any Security Council resolution on Syria.

"The situation in this country, in our opinion, does not pose a threat to international peace and security," foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said, Russian state media reported.

Syria's foreign ministry, meanwhile, said Damascus was "determined to pursue reforms under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad.

"It will authorise no external interference on this subject."

In Geneva, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: "We are receiving an increasing number of alarming reports pointing to the Syrian government's continuing efforts to ruthlessly crush civilian protests."

Human rights groups say more than 1,100 people have been killed throughout the country since the protests erupted in mid-March.

Pillay said activists were now reporting that up to 10,000 people had been detained. Damascus has disputed allegations of rights violations.

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