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Updated: June 10, 2011 22:52 IST

Syria raids flashpoint town

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Turkey, U.S. accuse Assad regime of atrocities

Syrian security forces launched a long-feared crackdown in a flashpoint town on Friday and killed seven pro-democracy demonstrators, as Turkey accused the regime of atrocities and the U.S. slammed the “slaughter of innocent lives”.

“Army units have started their mission to control Jisr al-Shughur and neighbouring villages and arrest the armed gangs,” said state television, adding the raid on the northwestern town came “at the request of residents”.

One witness told AFP that “military forces bombarded the villages around Jisr al-Shughur in their advance on the town”.

“Soldiers torched wheat fields in the village of Al-Ziyara,” 15 kilometres southeast of Jisr al-Shughur, he said.

Rights activists said most of the 50,000 inhabitants of Jisr al-Shughur had fled — many to neighbouring Turkey — when tanks and troops began converging on the town midweek and that it was now largely deserted.

State television blamed “armed terrorist gangs” on Wednesday as it ran images of “massacres” in Jisr al-Shughur which it said had resulted in the deaths of 120 police and troops on Monday.

But opposition activists said the deaths resulted from a mutiny by troops who refused orders to crack down on protesters.

It was not possible to independently verify the version of events as foreign journalists are banned from reporting in Syria.

Protesters, meanwhile, poured on to the streets of main towns and cities on Friday after the weekly Muslim main prayers, many chanting slogans against President Bashar al-Assad and in support of Jisr al-Shughur residents.

Security forces shot dead seven anti-regime protesters, including two in Daraa, rights activists said.

More than 1,200 civilians, including dozens of children, have been killed in a government crackdown during the past three months, rights groups say.

Mr. Assad has come under fire from Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a personal friend.

“Unfortunately they do not behave humanely,” Mr. Erdogan said in a television interview late Thursday carried by Anatolia news agency, describing the treatment of the bodies of women slain by the security forces as an “atrocity.”

“I talked to [Mr. Assad] four or five days ago,” said Mr. Erdogan. “But they underestimate the situation.”

Mr. Erdogan said the brutal crackdown was “unacceptable” and would “necessarily” lead the U.N. Security Council to step in.

It was Ankara's harshest reaction yet to the Syrian turmoil, which has forced nearly 3,000 people to seek refuge across the border in Turkey.

U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates piled pressure on Assad on Friday, saying his very legitimacy was on the line.

“The slaughter of innocent lives in Syria should be a problem and concern for everybody,” Mr. Gates said in Brussels.

At the U.N. Security Council, western powers have begun debating a draft resolution put forward by Britain and France demanding an end to the violence and an arms embargo on Syria. — AFP

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