June 17 (Bloomberg) -- Syrians are fleeing a second town and nearby villages in the north of the country, fearing President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are preparing to widen their crackdown on anti-government protesters in the region, according to human-rights activists.
The people of Ma’arrat an Nu’man “have information that the army will surround the villages, and they are leaving before the army comes,” Ammar Qurabi, head of Syria’s National Organization for Human Rights, said in a phone interview yesterday. “We are scared now of a repeat of Jisr al- Shughour.”
People leaving Ma’arrat an Nu’man are unlikely to head to Turkey, as it isn’t as close to the border as Jisr al-Shughour, whose population has largely fled since the army began a crackdown there in response to the death of 120 security personnel, Qurabi said. Instead they may go east to the countryside or to Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the Syrian government attacks on protesters are “totally unacceptable” and called on Assad to “top killing people.”
“I have discussed and talked to President Assad several times, I have strongly urged him to listen to the wishes and aspirations of the people,” Ban told reporters in Brasilia yesterday. “I again strongly urge president Assad and his authorities, his regime’s authorities, to stop killing people, and to engage in inclusive dialogue and to take decisive and bold measures before it is too late.”
‘Fire for Change’
Efforts by Britain, France, Germany and Portugal in support of a UN Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian crackdown have run into the prospect of Russian and Chinese vetoes.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland criticized Assad’s “barbaric attacks” on protesters and said that the U.S. is “increasing contacts” with Syrian dissidents inside and outside the country.
“Assad’s repression has only served to pour gasoline on the fire for change,” Nuland told reporters yesterday.
“Several weeks ago, President Obama echoed repeatedly by the secretary, gave Assad a choice: Reform or get out of the way,” she said. “And increasingly, he appears to have made his choice. Rather than playing a positive role, under Assad, Syria has increasingly become a source of instability in the region.”
Protests against Assad’s rule began in mid-March, part of a wave of demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa this year that have unseated the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia. A total of 1,289 civilians and 332 security forces have been killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on June 12.
About 500 more people have crossed into Turkey, the Turkish state-run Anatolia news agency said, bringing the total number of refugees in the southeastern province of Hatay to 8,904. The influx started on June 8 after Syria’s army began an offensive in Jisr al-Shughour to root out what the regime described as “armed gangs.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, speaking after a four-hour meeting with Syrian envoy Hassan Ali Turkmani in Ankara, reiterated Turkey’s promise to keep its borders open and said it will also provide humanitarian aid to more than 10,000 people in makeshift camps across the border. Davutoglu said Assad is determined to enact reforms and the Syrian government is working to control the violence.
“I saw fear in the eyes of these people,” Davutoglu said, referring to his visit to tent cities in the province of Hatay June 15. “We want a strong, stable, prosperous Syria and for that to happen wide-ranging reforms need to be enacted as per Assad’s commitment to democratization.”
The Syrian military said its forces were attacked by armed rebels in Jisr al-Shughour, while opposition supporters and local residents have said those who died there were executed after refusing to fire on pro-democracy protesters.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he doubts that Assad will make political changes that would weaken his own faction of Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and give more power to the majority Sunnis.
“The regime will continue its crackdown on people and might make some changes while trying to convince the world that everything is normal, but it won’t stop the brutality of Assad’s regime,” he said in a telephone interview from Washington.
--With assistance from Matthew Bristow in Brasilia and Nadeem Hamid in Washington. Editors: Terry Atlas, Ann Hughey.
To contact the reporters on this story: Caroline Alexander in London at firstname.lastname@example.org; Emre Peker in Ankara at email@example.com
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