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Syrian women at a makeshift refugee camp in the town of Khirbet al-Jouz, along the Syrian-Turkish border, Syria, June 10, 2011. On Saturday, there were reports of Syrian government forces firing on civilians and bombarding the restive northern town of Jisr al-Shoughour, and more than 1,000 refugees have fled to Turkey in recent days.

The New York Times, New York Times

Syria city 'extremely miserable'

  • Article by: LIAM STACK
  • New York Times
  • June 11, 2011 - 6:48 PM

CAIRO - Syrian security forces continued to bombard the restive northern town of Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday as people struggled to escape, residents said.

It was not clear why at least some parts of the city remained out of the control of the security forces, with reports indicating that residents who stayed behind to defend against the assault were badly outgunned.

"Helicopters and tanks are bombing Jisr from all the sides and the situation is extremely miserable -- they are even targeting cars carrying civilians and the wounded," said Mohamed al-Abdo, a refugee hiding in the hills above town. He said he could hear the boom of explosions and the sound of helicopters even from miles away.

The city has been tense for days, since more than 120 members of Syria's security forces were killed by what state television called "armed gangs." Local residents reject that version of events and say the soldiers were killed by other soldiers when they tried to defect.

If the residents' claims are verified, they would represent the first incident of large-scale army defections and fighting among security forces and pose a grave challenge to the government of President Bashar Assad, who has relied on security forces to crush an unprecedented popular revolt against more than four decades of iron-fisted rule by his family.

Security forces massed in the region near the city for several days last week, finally storming it Friday night after a daylong drive north in which they burned fields and fired on civilians in several villages as they closed in, according to local residents.

Fleeing toward Turkey

Many residents from nearby villages fled into the mountains and toward the Turkish border. Fires burned on the hillsides on Friday night, said one resident of Jisr al-Shughour reached by phone, as troops pursuing fleeing residents of one of the villages, Al Sarmaniyah, set the brush afire as "revenge." More than 1,000 refugees have fled to Turkey from Syria's impoverished and rural northwest in recent days, and many more are said to be camping near the border and hiding in the region's hills.

Residents of Jisr al-Shughour who were reached by phone said that security forces were in control of the eastern part of the town but that it remained possible -- but dangerous -- for people to come and go from the northern sections of the city. On Friday, they estimated that about 5,000 people remained in the city of a population of more than 50,000.

Fadi, a 27-year-old resident who gave only one name for fear of government retribution, was wounded when security forces in the village of Ishtabrak fired on his car as he fled the town on Friday night. He drove to Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday to help ferry refugees to nearby mountains, including residents of a senior citizens' center.

"I saw many wounded but couldn't help them because there are no ambulances," he said by phone.

He said he saw five dead bodies in the town and heard a "big explosion." "We're trying to evacuate more families from the east side of Jisr who are stuck, but I'm afraid it is very hard to reach there," he said. "The northern part is the safest, but I think it won't be spared. This regime is ready to go to the end."

A core group of men stayed behind to defend the town from the military assault they assumed would come, and over the last several days they dug trenches and built barricades in the street out of piled stones.

Fears of massacres

"They want to commit massacres similar to Hama in the '80s," said Al-Abdo, the resident hiding in the hills, referring to a town where troops loyal to President Hafez Assad, the current president's father, killed more than 10,000 people in 1982.

Syria's official news agency, SANA, announced that army units "arrested on Saturday two leading groups of the armed gangs" in the city and its surrounding villages, seizing "machine guns, explosives, electric detonators and Turkish SIM cards." It also said that "terrorists" in Jisr al-Shughour ambushed some of its reporters and a photographer.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, traveling in Zambia, said Syria's government was "engaged in horrific, revolting attacks against its own people" and found herself forced to defend the lack of forceful international action. She said regional leaders did not support the sort of intervention under way in Libya. "The region, however, is trying behind the scenes to get the government to stop," she told three journalists in an interview with Africa 360, a news program.

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