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Terrified families flee as Syrian troops blast rebel town

By Kim Sengupta

Syrian forces stormed the town of Jisir al-Shughour yesterday, which had become a symbol of militant opposition after an intense artillery and tank bombardment. But defiant protests, and the regime's response to them, continued with helicopter gunships opening fire on demonstrators and troops setting homes on fire.

The spreading strife led to a fresh exodus of terrified families seeking sanctuary. More than 5,000 were in rapidly filling camps in neighbouring Turkey.

Another 10,000 were stranded on the Syrian side of the border. Some who had no access to medical treatment did not survive. Funerals were held for a dozen of the dead in the "no-man's land" yesterday.

By nightfall regime forces were in control of the border town. The streets were deserted, the vast majority of the 40,000 residents had fled and around 200 who had stayed behind had either been killed or taken away under arrest.

Four decapitated and uniformed bodies were found in the wreckage of the police headquarters, the grim aftermath of a mutiny by security forces in the city and evidence of the greatest threat to Bashar al-Assad's rule since the start of the uprising - troops turning against his regime.

The regime had claimed that "armed gangs" had killed 120 members of the security forces at Jisr al-Shughour, necessitating the assault. Yesterday state controlled television said that forces had uncovered mass graves of security men, and the corpses bore marks of atrocities carried out by extremist groups.

Residents and human rights groups give a different account, saying the dead were victims of loyalist forces who had executed those who had refused to shoot civilians. "We were not involved in fighting, it was the soldiers who had been killing people for simply going out to demand justice," said Abu Hatin, who had fled the city three days previously.

"I saw a young man dragged out of his home. They shot him as they put him in their car.

"The fighting was between the soldiers, some were for the people and some against," he said. "Some tried to protect us."

There were fierce clashes at Jisr al-Shughour following the two-pronged attack.

Locals claimed the fighting was due to former security force members turning their guns on forces still loyal to Assad. About 60 policemen had stayed behind to defend the city, residents said, but it was not known what happened to them.

Factfile

The operations in Jisr al-Shughour, Mirat al-Numan and villages surrounding the Jabl al-Zawiya mountains are said to have been led by an unit commanded by Lt Col Maher al-Assad, a brother of the president. They were supported by detachments of the Mukhabarat - the secret police - and the Shabbiha, a militia from the Alawite community from which the country's ruling elite are drawn. The Syrian regime has said that 500 members of the security forces have died since the start of the uprising.

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