Saturday, 07 April 2012, 07:11 GMT
Syrian refugees flee violence, talk of mass graves


This citizen journalist image obtained by the Associated Press on Friday, April 6, 2012, shows a mass burial of people allegedly killed in recent shelling in Taftanaz, Syria./ AP

AP

Activists reported about 100 dead in the villages of Taftanaz and Killi in recent days.

After days of relentless shelling and sniper attacks, thousands of Syrian refugees streamed across the border into Turkey with horrific accounts Friday of mass graves, massacres and burned-out homes.

The latest reports of escalating violence fueled accusations that President Bashar Assad is rushing to stamp out as much of the year-old uprising as he can before a U.N.-brokered cease-fire next week.

The trigger for the new waves of refugees was an offensive in Idlib province, which borders Turkey and has become increasingly rebellious against the Assad regime.

Activists reported about 100 dead in the villages of Taftanaz and Killi in recent days.

A photograph provided to The Associated Press by a Syrian activist showed at least a dozen corpses wrapped in blankets in what appeared to be a mass grave in Taftanaz. The AP could not verify the authenticity of the photograph, but witnesses also described a mass grave.

"They destroyed the whole village," a refugee who asked to be identified by only one name, Anas, told the AP on Friday after fleeing Killi. "If he has to kill, Bashar would even kill 1 million people. He doesn't care."

Hikmet Saban, another Syrian refugee who reached Turkey, described the devastation in Taftanaz, located several miles outside the city of Idlib.

"Helicopters and tanks are bombarding continuously," he told Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency. "Taftanaz has been burnt to the ground for three days." Activists posted video they said showed a helicopter gunship firing a missile at Taftanaz and a mosque hit by shelling.

The escalating violence has dimmed hopes that the fighting, which the U.N. says has killed more than 9,000 people, will end anytime soon. The country appears to be spiraling toward civil war ? a fearsome development that could bring a regional conflagration.

A vital geopolitical linchpin, Syria borders five other nations and has close ties to Iran and powerful militant groups, such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Assad last week accepted a cease-fire deadline brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for his forces to pull out of towns and cities by Tuesday and for everyone to lay down their arms by 6 a.m. local time Thursday.

Western leaders have cast doubt on Assad's intentions, suggesting he is playing for time and is not serious about the plan, which aims to pave the way for talks between the regime and the opposition on a political solution.

Syria denies that the revolt is a popular uprising at all, saying instead that it is facing a foreign conspiracy by armed gangs and terrorists who want to destroy the country.

The revolt began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests, but the violent government crackdown has led many to take up weapons. A fighting force called the Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors, is determined to bring down the regime by force of arms.

On Friday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he spoke by phone for half an hour with Assad, who told him the security situation in his country is improving and he hopes the violence will ease soon.

"He told me there have been more than 2,000 soldier martyrs and a larger number of innocent people who have died as a result of the terrorist plan to remove him from power," Chavez said in a phone call broadcast live on Venezuela's state television.

Also Friday, Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, appeared to acknowledge the recent spike in violence, but again blamed terrorism.

Syria sent letters to the United Nations and U.N. Security Council that said "acts committed by terrorists groups escalated especially after the agreement over Kofi Annan's plan was reached," SANA reported.

But witnesses who streamed in Turkey said regime forces were driving the bloodshed.

Ahmad, a refugee from Taftanaz who, like other witnesses, asked only to be identified by his first name, said families were forced to bury the dead in a "collective grave."

He said the shelling stopped only when the soldiers needed more ammunition.

"The humanitarian truce promised by the Annan plan? If they grant us a two-hour truce, it would be to let us leave our houses, and then they would shoot again," he said.

Fadi al-Yassin, an activist in Idlib province, said Syrian troops took control of Taftanaz on Thursday after three days of intense shelling and attacks.

He said 95 people were killed in the attack, including 37 who were burned beyond recognition. He also said the dead were buried in mass graves.

"The situation is catastrophic in Taftanaz," he said. "The grand mosque was destroyed and about 200 homes heavily damaged."

He added that troops have now left the village, taking up positions around it.

The stream of Syrians fleeing to Turkey has picked up considerably, with about one-third of the total of 24,000 refugees arriving in the past two weeks. Some 2,500 crossed the border on Thursday alone, said Ankara's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, adding that the daily flow has doubled since Syria promised last week to abide by the truce.

Davutoglu told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday his country would seek U.N. assistance if the influx continues. Turkey has in the past floated the idea of creating a small buffer zone inside Syria if refugee flows become overwhelming.

"We are doing our best to shelter them in camps, temporary housing units. No one is left out," Davutoglu said. "But everyone should realize that there is a problem here. We will ask for humanitarian assistance when needed."

Turkey's state TV showed dozens of refugees, including a young man on crutches and a defector from the Syrian army in military camouflage, huddled behind razor wire on the Syria-Turkey border Friday, waiting to cross into Turkey. Turkish soldiers registered their names before letting them in.

Violence also was reported Friday in Syria's central city of Homs, where thick black smoke billowed from a residential area amid the sounds of heavy gunfire and explosions. "Intense shelling by Assad's gangs," a man could be heard saying while filming what appeared to be a house on fire. "May God help us."

Regime forces also struck the town of Rastan, just north of Homs, with heavy machine guns and mortars, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Ground troops later tried to push their way into Rastan, clashing with opposition fighters, the group said.

The government has been laying siege to Rastan since rebels took control of it in late January. However, they don't control the strategic Rastan bridge, which is the main link to northern Syria. In the past year, the rebels have tried repeatedly to overrun the bridge and break the siege.

Government forces also broadened an offensive in the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Saqba, Arbeen and Dumair, exchanging fire with rebels, activists said. The Observatory said four members of the military were killed.

Tanks fired at buildings while snipers took up positions atop a 12-story medical building in the sprawling Douma district, about 8 miles (12 kilometers) outside the capital of Damascus, said activist Mohammed Saeed. He said two people were killed by tank fire.

Troops had entered Douma on Thursday in what activists described as one of the most violent raids near Damascus since the uprising began.

Plumes of smoke rose in Saqba, and activists said regime forces torched at least one house. In Dumair, the Observatory reported intense fighting and said an armored vehicle was destroyed.

The Observatory said 23 civilians, nine government soldiers and four opposition fighters were killed Friday.