Hundreds Flee Syrian Town, Fearing Reprisals

Posted June 7th, 2011 at 9:55 pm (UTC-5)
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Syrian civilians are fleeing a restive border town with troops and tanks approaching, fearing retribution after the government accused “armed gangs” of “massacring” scores of its security men. Local residents disputed the official account, saying the violence broke out following a wave of defections from security forces sent to attack the city.

Witnesses in Jisr al-Shughour said Tuesday people are fleeing the area for the Turkish border or nearby villages after the government vowed to respond “decisively” to the recent violence. Activists described the town as nearly empty, saying even medical personnel had left.

Details of the recent events in Jisr al-Shughour remain unclear. Government officials say armed gangs killed 120 soldiers in the town during clashes over the past few days. Syrian authorities have acknowledged losing “intermittent” control of the area.

But residents and activists said Tuesday fighting erupted between members of the security forces when soldiers began to switch sides, joining with protesters after days of bloody crackdowns. Other reports said Syrian civilians also took up arms to defend themselves, with some giving medical care to the defectors.

For weeks, rights groups have cited sporadic reports of defections and military units fighting each other. If unofficial accounts of the killings in Jisr al-Shughour are confirmed, the clashes would represent the deadliest mutiny since the 3-month uprising began.

Neither version of events could be independently verified because foreign journalists are not allowed in Syria.

The region near the Turkish border has become the most recent flashpoint in a widespread anti-government uprising with protesters calling for an end to President Bashar al-Assad's 11-year authoritarian rule.

Meanwhile, France's foreign minister says it is “inconceivable” that the United Nations Security Council has remained silent on the escalating crackdown in Syria.

Alain Juppe told reporters at the U.N. Tuesday that France is working with Britain and other European allies to gather majority support for a resolution condemning Syrian violence against civilians. He said a date to vote on the issue would be set in “days, maybe hours.”

A draft circulated last month does not propose military intervention. Still, Russia said Tuesday it would veto a resolution against Syria in the U.N. Security Council.

In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Mr. Assad needs to “reform or step aside.” U.S. President Barack Obama and his top officials have made similar statements urging the Syrian leader to transition to democracy or “get out.”

Also Tuesday, a report that Syria's ambassador to Paris had quit prompted speculation of dissent within the Syrian government. France 24 television aired comments it said was Lamia Shakkour resigning. But Al-Arabiya later broadcast comments in Arabic it said were from Shakkour in which she denied making such a statement.

Rights groups say at least 1,100 people have been killed in the government's crackdown against the anti-government campaign that began in March. More than 10,000 people have been arrested.