Syria extends army crackdown on protesters

THOUSANDS of Syrians fled the historic town of Maarat al-Numaan yesterday to escape troops and tanks pushing into the north in a widening military campaign to crush protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

In the tribal east, where Syria’s 380,000 barrels per day of oil is produced, tanks and armoured vehicles deployed in the city of Deir al-Zor and around Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, a week after tens of thousands of people took to the streets there demanding an end to Assad’s autocratic rule.

Syrian forces pushed toward Maarat al-Numaan, a town of 100,000, which straddles the main north-south highway linking Damascus with Syria’s second city Aleppo, after arresting hundreds of people in villages close to Jisr al-Shughour, near the border with Turkey, residents said.

The state news agency said an army crackdown in Jisr al-Shughour, where the government said 120 security personnel were killed earlier this month, had restored security there and thousands of people were returning.

More than 8,500 Syrians, many from Jisr al-Shughour, have sought sanctuary in Turkey, which has set up four refugee camps across the border, about 20km from the town.

A 36-year-old Syrian who gave his name as Ahmed fled with his wife and six children to Turkey after learning troops had arrived in Jisr al-Shughour, near his village.

“We came here to protect our family. We’re not against them [security forces] but they fight us like we were infidels,” Ahmed, sun burned and dressed in a dirty tracksuit, told Reuters in the Turkish border village of Guvecci.

A Turkish Red Crescent official, who requested anonymity, said more tent camps were being prepared at the eastern end of the 800 km border, near the Turkish city of Mardin, far from where the current influx of refugees is concentrated.

In the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, witnesses said several tanks deployed inside the provincial capital on the Euphrates River after security forces pulled out of the streets last week.

Protests there continued and a violent confrontation occurred this week between Assad supporters and protesters during which several people were seriously wounded, they added.

In Damascus, thousands of Assad supporters lined one of the capital’s main thoroughfares and lifted a 2,300-meter-long tricolour Syrian flag, while waving pictures of the president.

Syrian rights groups say 1,300 civilians have been killed since the start of the uprising in March against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 41 years.

Syria has banned most foreign correspondents since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.

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