As Its Crackdown Continues, Syria Calls for Refugees to Return

Posted June 15th, 2011 at 6:25 am (UTC-5)
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Syria is calling for refugees who fled to Turkey to escape its violent crackdown on anti-government protesters in Jisr al-Shughour to return home.

The Syrian government's official news agency Sana said that “calm and security” had been restored in the town and surrounding area. It said “all necessary needs” would be provided for the returning refugees, including medical aid and food.

The Turkish government says more than 8,000 Syrians crossed the border in recent days to sleep in makeshift tents as Syrian tanks swept through the northern towns.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops advanced on Maarat al-Numan, 40 kilometers southeast of Jisr al-Shughour, for what authorities said was a “limited military operation.”

Some witnesses said security forces were preventing residents from leaving Idlib province and shot at people who attempted to bypass military checkpoints. Rights activists said six residents were killed in Ariha, to the east of Jisr al-Shughour. About 1,300 civilians and 340 security forces have been killed since the protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government started in mid-March.

Turkey has rushed to open up new camps to house more Syrians. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Mr. Assad on Tuesday and urged him to “refrain from violence and end the unrest.”

On Wednesday, Damascus dispatched an envoy, Hassan Turkmani, to Ankara to discuss the crisis with Mr. Erdogan.

Over the past few days, security forces have arrested hundreds of people following sweeps through Jisr al-Shughour and surrounding villages, after the government accused “armed groups” of killing 120 security personnel.

But residents and soldiers who have deserted said those killed were civilians and security forces who had mutinied, refusing to shoot protesters and joining anti-government demonstrators.

Refugees reaching Turkey said elite Syrian forces were combing villages and arresting men between the ages of 18 and 40. Others told of a scorched-earth campaign with men in black uniforms pouring gasoline on farmlands.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Iran of backing the Syrian assault on the demonstrators, comparing it to the brutal tactics that Iran used after the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Syria has banned most foreign journalists, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.