AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian troops rounded up hundreds of people in a sweep through villages near Jisr al-Shughour on Monday, fleeing residents said, after President Bashar al-Assad’s army retook the rebellious town.
Nearly 7,000 Syrians have already fled the region around Jisr al-Shughour, seeking sanctuary in neighboring Turkey, while thousands more are sheltering close to the frontier in rural areas just inside Syria, activists say.
Monday’s wave of arrests followed an army assault on the northwestern town, with troops backed by helicopters and tanks regaining control one week after authorities said 120 security personnel were killed in fighting they blamed on “armed groups.”
Some residents said the killings followed a mutiny, or a refusal by some troops to shoot protesters who had joined nationwide demonstrations calling for an end to Assad’s rule.
Refugees from Jisr al-Shughour, sheltering on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, said the military was combing villages to the east of the town and arresting hundreds of men between the ages of 18 and 40, in a pattern seen in other military crackdowns since the unrest started in March.
One person who escaped from Jisr al-Shughour, called Khaled, said two mosques had been hit by tank shelling and the bodies of three fleeing residents, a man, a woman and a child laid on a road 2 km north of the town near a packing material factory.
Mustafa, a 39-year-old mason who fled on Sunday, said there were nine bodies in Jisr al-Shughour and seven on the outskirts.
“This would be a relatively light death toll,” one activist in Damascus said. “The shelling and firing have been indiscriminate and we have been fearing a higher death toll,”
Syrian rights groups say 1,300 civilians have been killed since the start of the uprising. One group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, says more than 300 soldiers and police have also been killed.
ARMY TAKES CONTROL
The government says the protests are part of a violent conspiracy backed by foreign powers to sow sectarian strife.
Army units “have taken total control of Jisr al-Shughour and are chasing remnants of the armed terrorist gangs in the woods and mountains,” the Syrian news agency said on Sunday.
It said a soldier and two armed men were killed in clashes around the town. The army defused explosives planted on bridges and roads, and uncovered mass graves containing mostly mutilated bodies of 10 security men killed and buried by armed groups.
Syria has banned most foreign correspondents, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.
A man identifying himself as a Syrian army defector, whose comments were streamed on the Internet and translated by Britain’s Sky News television, said anti-government forces had set traps to delay the military advance and let people escape.
“We waited to get about 10 percent of the population out. The remaining 90 percent had already managed to leave,” the man, identifying himself as Lieutenant-Colonel Hussein Harmoush, told the online Ugarit News video news channel.
Thousands of people from the town of 50,000 people, located on a vital road junction, had already fled to Turkey, about 20 km (12 miles) away, before Sunday’s assault.
Turkey has grown increasingly critical of Assad in recent weeks and has now set up four camps to accommodate refugees.
In a sign of tensions between the countries, which had close trade and political ties before the crisis, supporters of Assad protested outside the Turkish embassy in Damascus on Sunday.
Turkey’s Anatolian news agency said some people climbed the embassy walls and hung a Syrian flag, and Syrian security forces prevented some protesters from trying to lower the Turkish flag.
A resident said the crowd, which had earlier marched past the French and British embassies, then tore down tourist posters on the outside wall of the Turkish embassy.
France, with British support, has led efforts for the United Nations Security Council to condemn Assad’s repression of the protests. Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said last week Assad had lost the legitimacy to rule Syria.
Assad, who inherited power when his father died in 2000, has offered some moves aimed at appeasing protesters, lifting a 48-year state of emergency and promising a national dialogue — steps which have been dismissed by many activists.
The privately-owned Al-Watan newspaper said on Monday a committee formed to investigate the unrest had imposed a travel ban on the former governor of Deraa, where protests broke out on March 18, and its head of security. It said there would be “no immunity for people who committed crimes.”
Residents said the army unit attacking Jisr al-Shughour was commanded by Assad’s brother Maher and employed the same tactics used to crush protests in other areas.
The United States has accused Syria’s government of creating a “humanitarian crisis” and urged it to halt its offensive and allow immediate access by the International Committee for the Red Cross to help refugees, detainees and the wounded.
(Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Peter Millership)