Syrian tanks, troops extend reach in border areas

June 14, 2011 - 7:28 AM
Mideast Syria

In this photo taken on Sunday June 12, 2011 and during a government-organised tour for media, Syrian army soldiers search inside the hospital in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, north of Damascus, Syria. Syrians poured across the border Monday to refugee camps in Turkey, fleeing a military crackdown that sent elite forces backed by helicopters and tanks into a northern town that was spinning out of government control. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

BOYNUYOGUN, Turkey (AP) — Syrian tanks pushed toward more towns and villages near the Turkish and Iraqi borders on Tuesday, expanding the crackdown against a 12-week uprising to the north and east as more Syrians flee their homes.

Activists reported tanks in the northern town of Maaret al-Numan and other villages near Jisr al-Shughour — a town that was retaken Sunday by Syrian elite forces backed by helicopters.

Human rights activist Mustafa Osso said tanks were also moving in the eastern province of Deir el-Zour on the Iraqi border, where the Syrian government claimed to have thwarted weapons smuggling.

Some analysts have said President Bashar Assad is trying to keep the opposition from establishing a base, which happened in Libya when the rebels trying to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi took over the coastal city of Benghazi. Assad initially had promised mild reforms, but his appeals have been rejected by the thousands of protesters who say they will not stop until he leaves power, ending his family's 30-year regime.

And in the past week, as the government appeared to be on the verge of losing control of major swaths of the country, the government has abandoned most pretense at reform.

Most of the major military operations have been in border areas such as Jisr al-Shughour, the southern city of Daraa near the border with Jordan and central province of Homs that borders Lebanon.

Activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have died and some 10,000 have been detained in the government crackdown since the popular uprising began in mid-March. About 8,500 have fled to Turkey, where they offer a frightening picture of life at home.

Mohammad Hesnawi, a 26-year-old from Jisr al-Shughour, was among them.

In the Syrian border village of al-Hasaniya, he said, Turkish authorities have given priority to women and children who want to flee.

"People in al-Hasaniya are eating fruit out of the trees, including apples and cherries," Hesnawi said, adding that there was not enough for everyone.

He accused pro-government militias known as Shabiha of atrocities in Jisr al-Shughour. "They damage homes and buildings, kill even animals, set trees and farmlands on fire," Hesnawi said.

The young man wished to go back to Syria after Assad's regime is gone.

Turkey's prime minister has accused Assad's regime of "savagery," but also said he would reach out to the Syrian leader to help solve the crisis.

Turkey and Syria once nearly went to war, but the two countries have cultivated warm relations in recent years, lifting travel visa requirements for their citizens and promoting business ties.

Turkey and Syria share a 520-mile (850-kilometer) border, which includes several Syrian provinces. Refugees and relatives on both sides appeared to be crossing unimpeded around the village of Guvecci.

In an apparent anticipation of more refugees, workers of the Turkish Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross, began building a fourth tent camp Monday near the border.

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Mroue reported from Beirut.

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Follow Bassem Mroue at http://twitter.com/bmroue