Bloomberg News

Syrian Assaults Push Villagers Across Flaming Fields to Turkey

June 11, 2011

{See EXTRA and MET for more on the regional unrest.)

June 11 (Bloomberg) -- Syrians fleeing President Bashar Al- Assad’s assault against northern towns resisting his rule tell stories of troops setting fields aflame and opening random fire, the chief of a Turkish village hosting refugees said.

Assad’s violence against his own people is straining the relationship with one of his closest allies, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is bracing his country for a flood of Syrian refugees.

Erdogan promised yesterday to approach Syria “very differently” after Turkish elections on Sunday, as thousands abandon their homes to seek safety in makeshift camps across the Turkish border. Attacks on protesters have escalated since the U.S. and European Union placed sanctions on senior officials in Assad’s regime last month.

From the Turkish border town of Guvveci last night, at least 15 vehicles could be seen lining up on the Syrian side to move another 1,000 Syrians across the border, village chief Cemil Utanc said. The number living in Turkish refugee camps is almost 4,000, Turkish state media says.

The latest influx comes from Syrian villages that were set aflame by advancing Assad forces, Utanc said by mobile phone from the border area. Utanc is acting as a translator for Turkish troops picking up the refugees. Turkish village children who cross the porous border with Syria daily said as many as 10,000 people were lining up to cross the mountains into Turkey.

‘Very Different Way’

“Let’s get these elections out of the way, see what the picture looks like, and then I’ll talk with the Syrians in a very different way,” Erdogan said in an interview with NTV television yesterday.

Assad’s forces killed at least 36 people as they advanced on northern towns including Jisr al Shughour, activists cited by Al Arabiya said. More than half of Jisr al Shughour’s almost 45,000 residents have fled, Mahmoud Merhi, Damascus-based head of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Syrian state television said the offensive on the town was directed against “rebels” who ambushed and killed 120 security personnel. The opposition says the forces were shot by Assad’s police for refusing to fire on protesters.

‘Visiting Relatives’

Syrian state television director Reem Haddad told the British Broadcasting Corp. that the thousands of Syrian refugees in Turkey were visiting relatives. “It’s a bit like having a problem in your street, so you go and visit your Mum for a bit,” she said. “A lot of them find it easy to move across because their relatives are there.”

Some of the refugees told a different story.

At one of three camps set up by the Turkish government and the Turkish Red Crescent at an abandoned tobacco warehouse in the town of Altinozu, hundreds of displaced Syrians staged an improvised demonstration, with children holding signs in Turkish thanking Erdogan for “saving” them from “Assad’s torture.”

“Down with Assad, long live Erdogan!” they chanted.

Celebrations also broke out at the largest of the Turkish camps in the border town of Yayladagi as an unfounded rumor spread that Assad had been killed or resigned, Turkey’s state- run Anatolia news agency said.

The Turkish government has refused access to the refugee camps, citing security concerns for their inhabitants. Information comes from local officials, bus drivers, medics and residents on the border.

Border Towns

Turks living in towns near the border share close relations with Syria. Among themselves, residents speak Arabic, not Turkish, and many have family on the other side.

In Guvecci, groups of Syrian boys came over for bread given out by the local municipality, passing a Turkish military outpost, then returned to the other side. In the fields beyond, minibuses lined up to transfer citizens to camps. Syrian cars pull up, drop off passengers, who are then met by Turkish troops or ambulances. The wounded are shuttled to hospitals, while the rest are transferred to minivans and brought to camps.

The point where most of the transfers are taking place is not an official border crossing.

Outside the camp in Altinozu, resident Hasan Kaplan showed reporters video of protesters being fired on apparently at random with machine guns as they demonstrated on a road near the town of Idleb. He said the video was taken about two weeks ago.

“People across Syria are being tortured,” he said. “They’re opening fire randomly on protesters. These people have left everything and come here to save their lives. There is no security left.”

At least 11 people were killed yesterday in Idleb, according to Syrian human rights activists. Kaplan said all of his relatives in Syria may make the trip across to Turkey.

Outrageous Violence

Since the protest movement erupted in Syria in March, Erdogan has backed Assad, calling him a “close friend,” pushing him to make democratic reforms that would satisfy the protesters’ demands and saying he believed that most Syrians supported him. That tone has begun to change in recent days.

“Four or five days ago I talked with Bashar Assad and explained the situation very clearly,” Erdogan said in an interview with ATV television yesterday. “Despite that, they’re taking this issue very lightly.”

He said the violence would be taken up by the U.N. Security Council.

Syrian security forces have killed more than 1,100 people since protests began in mid-March, human rights groups estimate. Erdogan has promised not to close the border to Syria, saying it was a moral imperative to keep it open.

“We can’t close our doors on those fleeing for their lives and seeking refuge in Turkey, but how long is this going to continue?” he said.

--With assistance from Caroline Alexander in London, Emre Peker in Ankara, Glen Carey in Riyadh and Robert Tuttle in Doha. Editors: Andrew J. Barden, Philip Sanders

To contact the reporter on this story: Benjamin Harvey in Yayladagi, Turkey at bharvey11@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden in Dubai at barden@bloomberg.net.


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