Syrian army chasing 'gangs' in northern mountains

AFP , Monday 13 Jun 2011

Syria's army, under fire for its crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, set about pursuing 'armed gangs' in the mountains near Jisr al-Shughur after seizing control of the hotbed northern town

This video image taken from amateur video released by Sham News Network, a Syrian Freedom group, shows a man, left, preparing to throw an object at a tank as others look on, in Daraa (Photo: AP)

Rights activists reported heavy gunfire and explosions throughout Sunday in the town near the Turkish border after troops backed by helicopter gunships and around 200 tanks launched a two-pronged assault at dawn.

State television said late Sunday that the army now completely controlled Jisr al-Shughur and that troops were pursuing "armed gangs" into the woods and nearby mountains.

Official media also reported the discovery of a mass grave in the town containing the mutilated bodies of 10 security agents whose hands, head and feet had been cut off.
"Armed groups had mutilated the corpses which were removed from the mass grave," the broadcaster said. It said the army entered the town "after defusing dynamite placed on the bridges and roads by the armed groups".

It added: "two armed men were killed and many more arrested, with machine guns also seized." Syrians reaching the Turkish border after fleeing the violence said the troops had distributed weapons to the Alawite community in Jisr al-Shughur.

"Right now they are attacking Jisr al-Shughur with tanks, helicopters and artillery," said 27-year-old Ali, citing residents who fled the town on Sunday to the Turkish border, around 40 kilometres (25 miles) away.

More than 5,000 refugees have arrived in Turkey so far and were settled in camps erected by the Turkish Red Crescent. Thousands more flocked to the border line, hesitating to cross.

"Right now the regime arms all Alawite families. They give guns to every man above the age 15," said another fleeing resident, who gave his name only as Mohammed.
He was referring to the Alawite religious group, an offshoot of the Shiite community, to which President Bashar al-Assad's family belongs.

Jisr al-Shughur is in Idlib province, long a hotbed of hostility towards the Damascus regime.

It has been the focus of military operations for the past week, following what the authorities said was the massacre of 120 policemen by "armed gangs" in the town on 6 June.

Activists and residents deny the existence of armed gangs and the allegations of a massacre. They say a number of policemen were executed by other security force members when they refused to fire on protesters in the town.

Among those who fled to Turkey were Syrian army deserters who gave details of the atrocities committed by soldiers who were themselves were under threat of execution if they disobeyed orders.

Their harrowing accounts tally with those gathered by US-based Human Rights Watch, which at the beginning of June released a report alleging systematic killings and torture by the Syrian security forces.

Security forces had been given shoot-to-kill orders by the commanders, said the report, which was based on interviews with more than 50 victims and eyewitnesses.
"The way the regime is currently handling the protests is exactly what caused demonstrations to spread in the first place: security forces detaining, torturing and killing citizens," said Syria's local coordination committees.

The committees, who coordinate protests on the ground, issued a statement calling for Assad's departure and for the creation of a transitional political body to govern the country for six months.

"We shall not accept giving an opportunity to leave Syria hostage to such an irresponsible regime," the statement read.

The harsh crackdown on dissent has sparked fresh international outrage with the United Nations, the United States and the European Union all urging Assad to end the violence and allow humanitarian groups access to those affected by it.

The crackdown on the pro-democracy protests that erupted in mid-March has killed more than 1,200 civilians, rights groups say.

Both the EU and the US are backing a UN Security Council resolution proposed by Britain and France that condemns Syria for its crackdown.
"The dangerous situation makes a clear reaction from the UN Security Council all the more urgent," German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose country currently holds a non-permanent seat on the council, said in a statement.

But Russia and China, both veto-wielding council members, oppose any such resolution. Damascus blames the unrest on "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.

It is not possible to verify the accounts as foreign journalists are not allowed to circulate freely in Syria.

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