Syrian troops take town on refugee flight route

AP News
Posted: Sep 06, 2012 8:02 AM
Syrian troops take town on refugee flight route

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops recaptured from rebels Thursday a border town used by refugees to cross to Jordan, activists said, an apparent bid by the regime to stem the flood of Syrians fleeing their country's civil war.

Damascus meanwhile accused Cairo of stirring up violence in the country, as Syria lengthens the list of other Arab countries that it blames for its unrest. Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi called this week for Syria's president to step down in an indication of the increasing isolation of Damascus in the Arab world.

In the latest clashes, hundreds of Syrian soldiers backed by 20 tanks assaulted Tel Chehab, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and local activist Mohammed Abu Houran said. Rebels fought back but were pushed out.

A Jordanian army officer living just across the border said by telephone that he had heard heavy shelling starting early in the morning, but that it had subsided by midday. "It sounded like the shelling came from tanks and armored vehicles," said the officer, who cannot be identified under standing army regulations. "God help the Syrian people."

The activists did not have any figures for casualties, but Abu Houran said that at least 2,000 refugees were waiting in the town for the chance to cross the border. Most of them were staying in two schools.

Syrian rebels, who claim to hold over half of the country's territory, had been in control of Tel Chehab for months. Abu Houran said that the town had faced repeated government assaults in the past.

An amateur video posted online by activists showed tanks and trucks full of soldiers passing through the town of Yadouda on their way to nearby Tel Chehab. The authenticity of the video could not be independently confirmed.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists throughout Syria, said troops were raiding homes in Tel Chehab and detaining people. It added that smoke was billowing from parts of the town.

Abou Houran said the regime was apparently trying to cut the route for refugees who have been fleeing their country's civil war in increasing numbers. More than 100,000 Syrians left in August alone, the highest over the past 18 months, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said.

More than 160,000 Syrian refugees now live in Jordan, and their number is increasing by the thousands every day. About 8,000 live in a newly set up camp on the border, while the rest are scattered across the country.

Activists say nearly 5,000 people were killed in August, the highest monthly total since the crisis began in March last year. Activists say 23,000 have died altogether.

Also Thursday, Syria's Foreign Ministry harshly attacked Egypt's Morsi, saying his calls for Syria's President Bashar Assad to step down constitute "blatant interference in Syrian internal affairs and an explicit attack on the Syrian people's right to choose their own future without any foreign interference."

It added that Morsi's remarks were "media provocation that aims to enrage the current violence in Syria" and that he is a "part of the current bloodshed in Syria."

Morsi said in remarks addressed to Assad on Wednesday: "I tell the Syrian regime that there is still a chance to halt the bloodshed." He added: "Don't listen to the voices that tempt you to stay (in power) because you will not be there for much longer. There is no room for further delaying a decision that will stop the bloodshed."

A war of words between Cairo and Damascus has escalated since Aug. 30, when Morsi said at a summit of emerging nations in Tehran that Assad's "oppressive" regime has lost its legitimacy and that the world must stand behind the Syrian rebels. Damascus then added Egypt, alongside Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, to the list of nations it says have stirred up unrest inside Syria.

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Activists also reported violence in other parts of the country Thursday, including in the Damascus neighborhoods of Qadam and Tadamon as well as the suburb of Sayeda Zeinab, just south of the capital. The Observatory said troops shelled some areas in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the capital.

Other clashes and shelling were reported in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, the central regions of Homs and Hama and eastern district of Deir el-Zour on the border with Iraq.

Syrian Health Minister Saad Abdul-Salam al-Nayef meanwhile said that the war has killed scores of people working in the medical sector and caused damage to the country's health infrastructure.

He was quoted by the state-run Tishrin daily as saying during a meeting with President of the International Committee of the Red Cross Peter Maurer that 42 medics have been killed and 52 others wounded over the past 18 months. He says 13 were kidnapped.

The minister said 38 hospitals, 272 ambulances, and 156 health care centers were damaged by the violence.

Minister of Electricity Imad Khamis was quoted as saying that more than 100 of the ministry's staff have been killed during the conflict.


Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.