RAMTHA, Jordan (AP) — The family crept across farmland under night's cover, heading for the border, when Syrian troops opened fire. Bullets whizzed around them as they broke into a mad dash, survivors say. The 6-year-old boy, holding his mother's hand, broke away and ran ahead. He nearly made it into Jordan when he fell dead, a bullet in his neck.
The boy, killed in the early hours Friday, was the first Syrian shot to death by border guards while trying to escape into neighboring Jordan from the bloodshed of their homeland's 17-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad. The slaying underlined not only the dangers of the passage, but the fine line Syria's neighbors have to tread in trying to help Syrians while avoiding being dragged into the conflict.
Bilal el-Lababidi and his parents were in a group of around a dozen Syrians trying to sneak into Jordan just after midnight, the latest of more than 140,000 Syrians who have taken refuge in the kingdom.
"He is a martyr who is now in a better place. I'm sure he is in heaven," said el-Lababidi's mother before the boy's burial later Friday at a cemetery in the northern Jordanian city of Ramtha. She made it across with her two younger sons — but her husband fled back amid the shooting.
"The criminal Bashar is the reason," she said, slapping her face with her fists as she wept. She wore a veil over her face and a traditional Muslim head-to-toe robe. "Bashar is killing his people and the whole world is watching and doing nothing." She would only identify herself as Umm Bilal, or "mother of Bilal," as conservative women often do in public rather than using their real names.
The family — Bilal's father, mother and their three sons— were fleeing from their southern Syrian hometown of Daraa, which was where their country's uprising began 17 months ago and which has continued to be a major battleground between rebels and regime forces. Bilal's father is a corporal in the regime military but had decided to defect, the mother said.
They and the others in the group were slipping across farmland and olive groves between the Syrian town of Tal Shihab, near Daraa, and the Jordanian border village of Turrah. The two towns are only about a mile (1.6 kilometers) apart at their closest point. The border running between them is marked only by a ditch with an old rusty string of barbed wire running down it — unmaintained and full of gaps, more of a marker than a barrier.
Their group made their way to about 50 yards (meters) from the ditch, their path dimly illuminated by a half-moon and the lights of nearby Turrah. That's when Syrian troops opened fire, and the refugees broke into a run, Umm Bilal said.
The Syrian troops emerged from behind nearby trees and began shooting, said two members of the Syrian rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, who helped organize the group's escape and later spoke with those who made it across.
The soldiers sprayed the area with bullets, according to a Jordanian border officer and a relative of Bilal who made it into Jordan with his mother. Jordanian guards on their side of the border fired in the air to try to scare off the Syrian troops, the Jordanian officer said.
"Bullets were coming from all directions. It was scary," said the relative, a frail man who sported a long beard and who spoke on condition he not be identified for fear of retaliation against the family in Syria. "I didn't know if one hit me and I couldn't look back to see if the others were wounded."
Bilal was running with his mother, the relative said. But then Bilal "slipped from his mother's hand" and went ahead and was shot just yards (meters) from the border ditch, he said.
Umm Bilal said the Jordanians took her son in and tried to save him, "but he was already dead."
Bilal's father and most of the others in the group ran back into Syria amid the gunfire, Umm Bilal said.
The Jordanian border official said he believed that amid the firing, the boy was specifically targeted because he was closest the fence. "It looks like a sniper targeted him to scare the others," the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
The whole shooting appeared to be an ambush by the Syrian troops, who were likely tipped off to the escape plan by an informer in Daraa, said the two FSA members who helped organize the dash for the border. They noted that the troops were waiting behind the trees for the group. The two FSA members, one of whom was now hosting Umm Bilal and her two surviving sons at a house in northern Jordan, spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity over their group's presence in the kingdom.
Syrian army troops frequently fire at those trying to cross the border to stop them, but not always — it depends on whether they are busy with quelling protests or rebels in nearby towns, the Jordanian border official said. Around 700 Syrians crossed on Thursday with no shots fired at them.
Last November, one woman was shot in the leg. In April, troops fired at a large group of around 900 refugees, wounding dozens, many of whom — including women — were then arrested and taken back into Syria.
But el-Lababidi is the first person to be killed, the border official and other Jordanian officials said. An FSA commander based in Turkey who monitors the border movements into Jordan, Ahmed Kassem, also said the boy was the first killed.
Jordan has been trying not to be dragged into what is now a civil war in Syria. In Amman, Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah insisted that Friday's shooting "will not draw Jordan into Syria's crisis."
"This unfortunate incident is an internal Syrian matter," he told The Associated Press.
Jordan had been even reluctant to set up the tents camps near the border that house most of the Syrian refugees, possibly to avoid angering Assad's autocratic regime by showing images at his doorstep of civilians fleeing his military onslaught. While Syria's rebels are present among the refugees and buy weapons in Jordan's black market, they must lie low and the government says it gives them no support.
Syria has been one of Jordan's largest Arab trade partners, with bilateral trade estimated at $470 million last year — and Syria is a vital route for Jordanian exports to markets in Turkey and Europe.
Last Sunday, Jordan's king announced that security along his northern frontier has been tightened, but Syrian refugees fleeing violence will still be allowed to enter.
"It is our duty to protect citizens, but at the same time, we have to open our doors to our Syrian brothers, and I'm very optimistic that the situation is moving in the right direction," King Abdullah II said at a Cabinet session.
Associated Press writer Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.