Tank Convoys Reportedly Grind Toward Syrian Town
Dozens of Syrian tanks were rumbling toward a northern border town Wednesday, witnesses said, as residents abandoned their homes in fear of a brutal strike by government troops after dozens of security forces died there earlier this week.
The ominous reports came as Britain and France prepared to introduce a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria's crackdown on protesters.
A human-rights worker in Syria confirmed that large convoys of tanks and elite troops were closing in on the area around Jisr al-Shughour and that an attack seemed imminent.
"The number of soldiers is in the thousands," Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press. He speculated that the government considers the operation to be a "decisive battle."
Osso said witnesses told him that thousands of troops were on the move toward the region in one of the biggest military deployments since Syria's 11-week-old uprising began. He said many of the forces were from the army's 4th Division, which is commanded by President Bashar Assad's younger brother, Maher. The younger Assad also commands the Republican Guard, whose main job is to protect the regime, and is believed to have played a key role in suppressing the protests.
A resident still in Jisr al-Shughour, which lies about 12 miles from the border with Turkey, said almost every one else had left.
"It's no use staying here and defending my property," he told NPR, asking that his name not be used.
About 400 Syrians crossed the border into Turkey. Turkish ambulances were waiting to whisk them to hospitals.
Turkey's government has said it is prepared to deal with a mass influx of Syrian refugees, though the border is relatively quiet for now. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that his country's doors were open to Syrians.
"It is out of the question for us to close the border crossings. We are watching the situation with great concern," Erdogan said. He urged Assad to quickly implement reforms "that would convince civilians."
The pro-government Syrian newspaper Al-Watan reported that the army was launching a "very delicate" operation designed to avoid casualties in the town. It said some people were being held captive by what it called "armed groups" that control some areas in Jisr al-Shughour and a large area of Idlib province.
The newspaper said gunmen had set up booby traps and ambushes in small villages to thwart security reinforcements and were sheltering in forests and caves.
Syrian forces have lost control of large areas of the northern province, Al-Watan reported, in a rare acknowledgment of cracks in Assad's tight grip as protesters call for an end to his 40-year rule.
A weekend protest in Jisr al-Shughour was met with live fire by security forces, but residents said some army soldiers balked at orders to shoot civilians and joined the anti-government protesters. The accounts could not be independently verified, but there have been credible reports of army defections in other Syrian towns.
An alleged army deserter identifying himself as Lt. Abdul-Razzaq Tlass appeared on the Al-Jazeera television network Tuesday, saying he was deserting because of the regime's "crimes" all over the country. He called on other officers to protect protesters against the regime, but government loyalists insisted he is a fake.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday that his nation would join France in a U.N. resolution against Syria "condemning the repression and demanding accountability and humanitarian action."
"If anyone votes against that resolution or tries to veto it, that should be on their conscience," Cameron told the House of Commons.
The resolution needs nine "yes" votes and no vetoes in the 15-member Security Council; five nations on the council — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China — possess veto-wielding powers. The U.S. is expected to approve the resolution, but there is a chance that Russia or China could veto it.
Russian lawmaker Sergei Markov said that Russia believes the Syrian government and the protesters have both played roles in the violence.
"Some outside players are also responsible for such kinds of violence," he said. "When the United States and France support so strongly the opposition in Syria, by doing this, they take responsibility for the violence."
The resolution does not suggest military intervention in Syria, nor does it propose economic sanctions. That may go some way toward placating Russia, a longtime Syrian ally.
But even if the resolution does pass, it's unclear whether it will be enough to change the Syrian regime's behavior.
"It may or may not, to be honest," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said. "What it will do is add to the mounting international condemnation of what's been going on in Syria and help build a broader coalition if you will towards ending the violence and pressuring Assad to make the right decisions."
Activists estimate that more than 1,300 Syrians, most of them civilian protesters, have died since the start of the nationwide uprising.
France considers it vital that the U.N.'s Security Council, so far silent on the deadly repression in Syria, take a stand.
Meanwhile, Syria's ambassador to France said someone impersonating her had announced her resignation on French TV.
In an on-camera interview with a competing cable network, the ambassador, Lamia Shakkour, said she's planning to sue French cable channel 24, which aired a telephone interview Tuesday with a woman claiming to be the ambassador. When asked about violence in Syria, the woman abruptly she said was resigning.
Shakour said the incident is part of a campaign of disinformation against Syria that has been going on since March. It also underscored the complexity of the messages coming out of Syria, where the government keeps tight control on information and foreign reporters have been expelled.
Until now, Assad's government has maintained a unified front during the uprising, with only two members of Parliament resigning since the rebellion began in mid-March, one of whom later withdrew his resignation.
With reporting from NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut, Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and Jackie Northam in Washington, D.C. Material from The Associated Press was used in this story.
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