Saturday, May 14, 2011

Syrian Troops Assault Border Town, Sending Hundreds Fleeing Into Lebanon

Published: May 14, 2011

BEIRUT, Lebanon ? Hundreds of Syrians fled into Lebanon on Saturday after Syrian Army troops assaulted a border town, killing at least three people and arresting hundreds in the latest phase of a ferocious crackdown on the two-month uprising against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Backed by dozens of tanks, Syrian troops entered the town of Tall Kalakh before dawn, following the pattern of raids on other cities like Dara?a, Baniyas and Homs. The assault came a day after another Friday of protests and an announcement by the Syrian government that a national dialogue would begin next week.

Even though the death toll in the protests on Friday paled compared with past weeks, the assault seemed to show that the government would persist with a crackdown that has led to the deaths of hundreds and the detention of thousands in one of the most brutal campaigns of repression since the so-called Arab Spring began. The uprising has represented the most serious challenge to the four decades of rule by the Assad family, though Syrian officials have maintained that they have the upper hand.

?People in the town were expecting a big military operation,? said a human rights advocate in Damascus, who was in contact with people in Tall Kalakh, a town about 25 miles from the Lebanese border. ?This morning, they saw army troops with dozens of tanks moving around their town.?

Fayaz Abdallah, a local official from the Lebanese village of Awadeh, across from Tall Kalakh, said that at least 600 Syrian families had fled to Lebanon since Saturday morning. He said that most of them were women and children. In all, Lebanese border officials say, at least 5,000 families have fled Syria since the beginning of the uprising in mid-March, when protests in the southern town of Dara?a over the arrests of youths set off nationwide demonstrations.

A local Lebanese official who gave his name as Amer said that among those who crossed the border Saturday were four wounded people, two men and two women. One of the men died later of his wounds in a Lebanese hospital, he said.

By nightfall, residents said, the town, along a landscape of rounded hills, remained tense. At least three people were killed in the assault, all by sniper fire, said Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group.

Mohamad Fawzi, a 24-year-old Awadeh resident, said that gunfire in Syria could be heard for hours on the Lebanese side of the border.

Since last month, the Syrian military, often at the vanguard of security forces and plainclothes paramilitary men known as shabeeha, has methodically marched across the country in an attempt to suppress the uprising by force. Dara?a was first, then Baniyas, on the Mediterranean coast, a week ago. Adnan Mahmoud, the Syrian information minister, said Friday that troops had pulled back from both those towns, though residents said a military presence remained. He declared both towns, and their hinterlands, quiet.

The assault on Tall Kalakh may have been spurred by a protest Friday by hundreds of professionals who have recently resigned from the governing Baath Party. In their protest, a show of dissent unheard of just months ago, residents said many of them chanted slogans calling for the fall of the government.

?For a week, we?ve been hearing that the government will send the army to punish us because we have been organizing big demonstrations against the Baath Party and President Assad,? said a Tall Kalakh resident who was reached by phone.

In past assaults, the military raid has been followed by waves of arrests, in which intelligence is gathered, and then more detentions are carried out.

Friday?s protests were, at least anecdotally, smaller than past weeks, though still remarkable in that they came in the face of the withering crackdown. Even in Homs, where the military deployed tanks last week, at least five small protests were reported.

Human rights activists said three people were killed Friday in Homs, Syria?s third-largest city, and three others in protests elsewhere in the country.

Human rights activists say that at least 775 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising. The government, which has portrayed the unrest as an armed rebellion led by militant Islamists and provocateurs, has said 98 soldiers and 22 police officers have been killed.

American officials acknowledge that at least some protesters, though a small minority, have resorted to arms.



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