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Syrian troops strike flashpoint town as refugees recount violence

The assault on the restive northwest town of Jisr al-Shughur may prove to be a pivotal moment in the rebellion against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

By Staff writer / June 10, 2011

Hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing violence in the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughur live in tents set up by the Turkish Red Crescent in the border town of Yayladagi, Turkey, on June 9. So far 2,400 Syrians have crossed into Turkey, but due to the close relations between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkish police and local authorities have been ordered to prevent the Syrian refugees from any contact with journalists at this camp, on the grounds of an old tobacco factory, and at hospitals.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Yayladagi, Turkey

Syrian troops launched an assault Friday to reclaim Jisr al-Shughur, a town in northwest Syria that saw a week of violence and a mass exodus ahead of the anticipated offensive.

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Announcing the start of the operation early Friday, Syrian TV claimed it was a response to "citizen" calls to "put villages around the city under control and to detain the armed elements which attacked people and committed atrocities."

But many of the 2,800 Syrians who in recent days have fled the town and neighboring villages for Turkey speak fearfully of the outcome as the regime of President Bashar al-Assad appears to be fighting for its life.

Events in Jisr al-Shughur are proving a pivotal point in the three-month rebellion against Mr. Assad's dictatorial rule that is coming under growing international scrutiny and condemnation.

Damascus says that "armed gangs" killed 120 police and security forces during days of battle last weekend in the town, which is 12 miles from Syria's northwest frontier with Turkey. But activists say pro-regime militiamen killed the troops because they refused to shoot at protesters.

Syrian forces on Friday also blasted tank shells at the village of Sirmaniya, six miles southwest of Jisr al-Shughur, according to an opposition activist who witnessed the event and spoke to CNN by telephone. From a hillside vantage point, he saw black smoke rising and heard tank cannons "firing several times a minute," CNN reported.

Erdogan's harsh criticism

Syria's violent response to opposition protests has yielded mounting global criticism as the death toll nationwide has climbed to perhaps 1,300.

Even Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose warm relations with Assad prompt both men call each other "brother," said late Thursday that Syria's actions were "savage" and could not be defended at the United Nations.

"Unfortunately they are acting in an inhumane way," said Mr. Erdogan. "The savagery right now ... these images are hard to eat, hard to swallow."

The Turkish leader – who is likely to win a third term in national elections Sunday – said he had spoken to Assad in recent days, “but they underestimate the situation.”

Erdogan said Syria’s attacks against unarmed civilians were “unacceptable,” and that the UN would “necessarily” have to take action.

US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Assad – who took over in Syria 11 years ago after the three-decade reign of his father Hafez – and his Alawite minority, are losing their legitimacy.

“The slaughter of innocent lives in Syria should be a problem and concern for everybody,” said Gates in Brussels. “And whether Assad still has the legitimacy to govern in his own country after this kind of slaughter I think is a question everybody has to consider.”

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