DAMASCUS (AFP) – Syrian troops pursued a scorched earth campaign in the northern mountains, but refugees who had fled to Turkey said some soldiers had revolted in a bid to defend civilians.
State media said two top officials were being investigated for their role in a previous crackdown, as international leaders continued to denounce the government campaign against protesters.
Some of the thousands of refugees to have fled into neighbouring Turkey said troops were burning crops and slaughtering livestock in villages near the border.
State television said the army was pursuing “armed gangs” into the woods and mountains around Jisr al-Shughur after storming the town, which had been a centre of protest, over the weekend.
Human rights activists reported heavy gunfire and explosions in the town throughout Sunday as troops backed by helicopter gunships and around 200 tanks launched a two-pronged dawn assault.
And on Monday, they reported intermittent gunfire as troops launched search operations in the village of Uram al-Joz, east of Jisr al-Shughur and in the Jebel al-Zawiya mountains further south.
But most of the town’s 50,000 residents were long gone, having fled during the week-long build-up to the crackdown.
Some of those who had fled to Turkey described how the Syrian army had embarked on a scorched earth policy in Jisr al-Shughur and other villages in Idlib province, long a hotbed of hostility towards the government.
But fighting had also broken out among the troops on Sunday as soldiers bent on destroying the area were confronted by others trying to defend the townsfolk, the refugees added.
Elements from one tank division had even taken up positions by bridges leading into the town in a bid to defend it, they said.
“The troops are divided,” said 35-year-old Abdullah, who fled Jisr al-Shughur on Sunday and sneaked over the border into Turkey to find food.
“Four tanks defected and they began to fire on one another,” he added.
Ali, another Syrian refugee who made it to Turkey, told a similar story.
“There is now a split within the army and you have a group who are trying to protect the civilians,” the 27-year-old told AFP.
Abdullah, who like many refugees would give only his first name, said troops had now reached Ziayni, a town just six kilometres (four miles) from the Turkish border.
“They torched all the crops, they slaughtered the goats, the cows,” he said.
“In the town itself, all the bakeries and the supermarkets have been pillaged, there is nothing left. The doors have been smashed in.”
He also said that there was a sectarian bias to the army’s crackdown.
Troops had focused on villages of the Sunni Muslim majority, leaving those of the president’s minority Allawite community untouched.
“The soldiers did not approach the Allawi villages. They only attacked Sunni villages, and destroyed them,” Abdullah said.
More than 6,800 of Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the town, Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported. Another 5,000 have fled into Lebanon, the United Nations said.
In Washington meanwhile, officials called on President Bashar al-Assad to either lead a transition or stand down, amid mounting frustration among Western powers at the failure of the UN Security Council to unite in condemning Syria.
France’s UN ambassador Gerard Araud protested that two weeks of diplomatic wrangling over a draft resolution condemning the crackdown was costing lives.
“In that time 400 people, including women and children, have died, sometimes under torture,” he said.
The United States backs the European draft, but veto-wielding Security Council permanent members Russia and China have so far blocked it. On Monday, they even boycotted talks on the draft resolution.
Several non-permanent Security Council members have also expressed reservations.
White House spokesman Jay Carney condemned Syria’s crackdown “in the strongest possible terms.
“A transition needs to take place,” he added.
“If President Assad does not lead that transition then he should step aside.”
But State Department spokesman Mark Toner ruled out a Libya-style military campaign for the time being.
“We’re just not there yet,” he said.
Syrian state media said two senior officials had been barred from travel abroad by an official inquiry into an earlier crackdown on protests in the Daraa region south of Damascus.
The bans affect Ateb Najib, a cousin of the president, who headed security in Daraa, and Faisal Kulthum, the town’s former governor.
Protests erupted in Daraa and then spread around the country after 15 students were arrested on suspicion of writing anti-government graffiti around the town.
The students were tortured and their fingernails extracted, Daraa residents said.