AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian tanks and helicopters stormed the town of Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday, residents said, and state television reported heavy clashes between army troops and gunmen opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
More than 5,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the border and a UNHCR spokesman said the Red Crescent was preparing a fourth camp with room for 2,500 more. Witnesses said some 10,000 Syrians were sheltering near the border.
The assault on Jisr al-Shughour, astride a strategic road in northwest Syria, is the latest action by the armed forces to crush demands for political freedom and an end to oppression that pose an unprecedented challenge to Assad’s 11-year rule.
Residents said earlier that most of the town’s 50,000 people had fled toward the Turkish border about 20 kms away and tanks and helicopters were shelling and machinegunning the town.
Damascus has banned most foreign correspondents from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.
“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,” state television said.
Army units defused bombs and explosive charges planted by gunmen on bridges and roads into the town, it said. “Two members of the armed organizations were killed, large numbers of them arrested, and lethal weapons in their possession were seized.”
State television said the forces uncovered mass graves of security men killed and buried by armed groups in Jisr al-Shughour and said their bodies bore marks of “atrocities.” It did not give details.
The government said last week that “armed gangs” had killed more than 120 security personnel in the town after large demonstrations there. Refugees and rights groups said the dead were mutinous soldiers, shot for refusing to fire on civilians.
“When the massacre happened in Jisr al-Shughour the army split, or they started fighting each other and blamed it on us,” a woman refugee, who refused to give her name, told Turkish news channel NTV.
MOST RESIDENTS LEFT
A senior Western diplomat in Damascus told Reuters: “The official version is improbable. Most people had left Jisr al-Shughour after seeing the regime’s scorched earth policy, shelling and the heavy use of armor in the valley.”
“The refugee exodus into Turkey is continuing and the numbers are higher than those officially counted so far.”
Asked if there were clashes in the town Mustapha, a 39-year-old mason who fled early on Sunday, told Reuters “What clashes? The army is shelling the town from tanks. Everyone has been fleeing.
“Even if we did have guns, what are they going to do in front of artillery? Syria is a tightly controlled dictatorship and all of a sudden the regime says Jisr al-Shughour is armed to the teeth. They are lying. They are punishing us for wanting freedom.”
Residents said the army unit was commanded by Assad’s brother Maher and was copying the tactics used in other centers to crush protesters demanding an end to Assad’s autocratic rule.
The United States accused the Syrian government of creating a “humanitarian crisis” and called on it to halt its offensive and allow immediate access by the International Committee for the Red Cross to help refugees, detainees and the wounded.
Turkey has provided camps for refugees and sent the wounded to hospitals, but restricted access to the refugees, saying this is to protect their privacy.
Bassam, a tiler who fled to Turkey as troops approached the town, 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.
He said troops burned wheat crops in three villages near Jisr al-Shughour in a scorched-earth policy aimed at crushing the resistance of protesters in the area.
Other refugees said troops killed or burned cows and sheep and burned crops on farmland around the village of Sarmaniya, south of Jisr al-Shughour.
The state news agency said “armed terrorist groups” had burned land in Idlib province as part of a sabotage scheme.
Human rights groups say security forces have killed more than 1,100 Syrian civilians in increasingly bloody efforts to suppress demonstrations calling for Assad’s removal, political freedom and an end to corruption and poverty.
The Syrian protests were inspired by uprisings against other entrenched autocrats in the Arab world.
At the United Nations Russia and China snubbed Security Council talks called on Saturday to discuss a draft resolution condemning Syria’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, U.N. diplomats said.
Largely Sunni Muslim Turkey had backed Syria’s ruling hierarchy — members of the minority Alawite sect — but has been increasingly critical of Assad’s use of force to quell the protests.
Thousands of people were gathering on the Syrian side of the border, according to an activist helping coordinate the movement of refugees. “The border area has turned practically into a buffer zone,” said Abu Fadi. “There are 7,000 to 10,000 people here now.”