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Syrian forces storm across towns in north

Elite troops shell villages; 32 die, activists report

By Selcan Hacaoglu and Zeina Karam
Associated Press / June 11, 2011

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YAYLADAGI, Turkey — Elite Syrian forces moved swiftly through the country’s restive north yesterday, raining tank shells on rebellious towns, torching farmland, and shooting protesters who tried to tear down a poster of President Bashar Assad, activists and refugees said.

At least 32 people were killed, activists said, and protests extended to every major city.

The leader of neighboring Turkey, angered by violence that has sent more than 4,000 Syrians streaming across the border, accused the Assad regime of “savagery.’’

Backed by helicopters and tanks, the troops responsible for most of yesterday’s violence were believed to be from an elite division commanded by Assad’s younger brother, Maher. The decision to mobilize his unit against the most serious threats to the 40-year Assad regime could be a sign of concern about the loyalty of regular conscripts.

Syrians who escaped from the town of Jisr al-Shughour into Turkey said the army came after police turned their guns on each other and soldiers refused orders to fire on protesters last week. Syrian state television has said 120 officers and security personnel were killed by gunmen. A man who remained behind said the few residents left were hoping barricades of burning tires could hold off the reinforcements surrounding them.

About 25 miles to the southeast in the town of Maaret al-Numan, thousands of protesters overwhelmed security officers and torched the courthouse and police station, and the army responded with tank shells, a Syrian opposition figure told Associated Press by phone, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Syria’s state-run television appeared to confirm at least part of the report, saying gunmen opened fire on police stations, causing casualties among security officials.

Syria’s government has a history of violent retaliation against dissent, including a three-week bombing campaign in 1982 against the city of Hama that crushed an uprising there. Jisr al-Shughour itself came under government shelling in 1980, with a reported 70 people killed.

Confirming information out of Syria is difficult. Communications are cut in areas where the uprising is strongest. Syrians who speak openly face retribution from the regime, and foreign journalists have been expelled.

Refugees trying to escape into Turkey gave a more detailed picture of the events in the north.

A group of young men who arrived at the Turkish village of Guvecci yesterday said that relatives who stayed behind told them Syrian forces were burning homes and fields in the village of Sirmaniyeh, near Jisr al-Shughour. One of the men said a helicopters had fired on a mosque there, then refused to say anything more.

“They are burning down everything there,’’ said a young man who gave his name as Adil. “They said they even killed animals. The people have no weapons, they can’t defend themselves. The only thing they can do is escape.’’

As he spoke another Syrian got a call telling him his cousin had died in Latakia, where activists said security forces fired on protesters who tried to tear down a giant poster of Assad, killing seven. The young man whose phone rang slumped and wept.

The Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents antigovernment protests in Syria, said 32 people were killed yesterday, half of them in Idlib, the province that contains Maaret al-Numan and Jisr al-Shughour.

Late yesterday, Syrian television said troops reached the entrances of Jisr al-Shughour and detained members of “armed groups.’’

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