Syrian Troops Retake Control of Northern Town

Posted June 12th, 2011 at 10:50 pm (UTC-5)
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Elite Syrian troops backed by helicopter gunships and tanks have seized control of a rebellious northern city.

Syrian state media said government troops entered Jisr al-Shughour early Sunday after defusing explosives planted by gunmen on roads and bridges. It said one soldier and two armed men were killed in clashes around the town.

After first shelling the city, tanks and other heavy armor rolled in from two directions.

Witnesses said Sunday's assault was staged by the army's Fourth Brigade led by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brother, Maher al-Assad. The army's regular forces are primarily composed of Sunni conscripts, but the Fourth Brigade is loyal to the Assad family and their Shi'ite Alawite sect.

Syrian troops Sunday removed the bodies of 10 security men from a mass grave found in Jisr al-Shughour. Official media said most had their heads and arms amputated. An Associated Press reporter who accompanied the Syrian troops said at least four of the bodies were beheaded or struck on the head with an ax.

The government has accused “armed gangs” in Jisr al-Shughour of killing security personnel. Residents said some of the soldiers and police had defected and joined with the protesters they had been ordered to shoot. The city has been the focus of military operations for days.

Neighboring Turkey, about 20 kilometers from Jisr al-Shughour, has given sanctuary to an estimated 5,000 refugees fleeing the fighting. Residents say thousands more have sought shelter in Syrian villages near the border.

Refugees interviewed by Western news organizations in Turkey said scores of mutineers were defending the town in an alliance with lightly armed residents.

France on Sunday strongly condemned the “increasingly brutal repression” in Syria, including the use of heavy weapons in Jisr al-Shughour.

British Foreign Minister William Hague also denounced the violence but said the prospects of passing a U.N. resolution condemning the Syrian government were unclear.

U.N. diplomats have held talks on a draft resolution condemning the violence, but they have failed to reach agreement. Many Western nations support the measure, but Russia and China have voiced opposition.

Germany's foreign minister on Sunday denounced the Syrian government's crackdown in the north and demanded that it “stop the violence immediately.” Both Germany and the U.S. have called on Syria to allow humanitarian and aid workers to help those in crisis areas.

A White House statement on Saturday accused the Syrian government of creating a humanitarian crisis in northern Syria, and called on Syrian authorities to give the International Committee of the Red Cross “immediate, unfettered access” to this region.

Also Saturday, mourners across Syria buried at least 32 people killed during rallies against Mr. Assad's government a day earlier.

Rights groups say more than 1,300 people have been killed in the Syrian crackdown that began in March and more than 10,000 people have been arrested.