Khaled Yacoub Oweis
Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN, June 10 (Reuters)
Syrian helicopter gunships fired machineguns to disperse a large pro-democracy protest in the town of Maarat al-Numaan on Friday, witnesses said, in the first reported use of air power to quell protests in Syria’s uprising.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that helicopters fired at the town after security forces on the ground killed five protesters, but said no killings were reported in the assault by the helicopters.
“At least five helicopters flew over Maarat al-Numaan and began firing their machineguns to disperse the tens of thousands who marched in the protest,” one of the witnesses said by telephone.
“People hid in fields, under bridges and in their houses, but the firing continued on the mostly empty streets for hours,” said the witnesses, who gave his name as Nawaf.
State television said earlier that well-armed “terrorist groups” had burned police buildings and killed members of the security forces in Maarat al-Numaan, which lies 55 km (35 miles) south of Syria’s second city Aleppo on the highway to Damascus.
It said they were “trying to repeat the scenario of Jisr al-Shughour”, some 35 km (20 miles) away, where the Syrian army swept into the northwestern border town and began to arrest what state television called “armed opponents”.
Authorities, who have banned most foreign correspondents from the country, have repeatedly tried to portray anti-government protesters as armed and violent.
“There were peaceful protests today (in Maarat) calling for freedom and for the downfall of the regime,” one demonstrator said by phone. “The security forces let us protest, but when they saw the size of the demonstration grow, they opened fire to disperse us.”
“During the protest, two officers and three soldiers refused to open fire so we carried them on our shoulders. After that, we were surprised to see helicopters firing on us.”
Activists said Syrian forces shot dead at least 28 at rallies after Friday prayers and thousands of civilians have fled the town into Turkey, fearing security forces’ revenge for incidents in which 120 troops were reported killed this week.
But protesters, refugees in Turkey and rights activists said some soldiers in the northwest had refused to shoot at protesters and fighting had broken out between loyalist and mutinous forces this week.
A 40-year-old man who had fled across the border into Turkey from Jisr al-Shughour with a bullet still in his thigh also described mutiny in Syrian ranks.
“Some of the security forces defected and there were some in the army who refused the orders of their superiors,” he said. “They were firing on each other.”
Human rights activists aired a YouTube video purporting to be from a Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Armoush saying he had defected with soldiers to “join the ranks of the masses demanding freedom and democracy”.
“We had sworn in the armed forces to direct our fire at the enemy and not on our own defenceless people. Our duty is to protect citizens and not to kill them,” he said in the video, whose authenticity could not be immediately verified.
Fifty-seven Syrians from Jisr al-Shughour were in hospital in Turkey, its state-run Anatolian news agency said on Friday.
Elsewhere in Syria tens of thousands of people marched to call for the overthrow of the president.
“Long live Syria, down with Bashar al-Assad!” many shouted.
Security forces shot dead at least two demonstrators taking part in a rally in the Qaboun district of the capital Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Some troops fired from rooftops at marchers, activists said.
Residents said government forces also killed two protesters in the village of Busra al-Harir in the southern Hauran plain and fired on thousands defying a heavy security presence in the southern city of Deraa, fount of the three-month-old revolt.
“There was a demonstration of 1,000 people when security police fired from their cars,” a Busra al-Harir resident said, giving the names of the dead as Abdelmuttaleb al-Hariri and Adnan al-Hariri. The latter was an amputee, residents said.
However, state television said unidentified gunmen killed a member of the security forces and a civilian in Busra al-Harir.
Another protester was shot dead in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A Turkish newspaper said Ankara was looking into creating a buffer zone along the border as a contingency if hundreds of thousands of Syrians were driven out by the military campaign to stamp out protests against 41 years of Assad family domination.
(Excerpted from Reuters)