Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Syrian refugees bring tales of horror

In Turkey, they tell of killings, mass graves

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REYHANLI, Turkey -- After days of relentless shelling and sniper attacks, thousands of Syrian refugees streamed across the border into Turkey with horrific accounts Friday of mass graves, massacres and burned-out homes.

The latest reports of escalating violence fuelled accusations that President Bashar Assad is rushing to stamp out as much of the year-old uprising as he can before a UN-brokered ceasefire next week.

The trigger for the new waves of refugees was an offensive in Idlib province, which borders Turkey and has become increasingly rebellious against the Assad regime.

Activists reported about 100 dead in the villages of Taftanaz and Killi in recent days.

A photograph provided to The Associated Press by a Syrian activist showed at least a dozen corpses wrapped in blankets in what appeared to be a mass grave in Taftanaz. The AP could not verify the authenticity of the photograph, but witnesses also described a mass grave.

"They destroyed the whole village," a refugee who asked to be identified by only one name, Anas, told the AP on Friday after fleeing Killi. "If he has to kill, Bashar would even kill one million people. He doesn't care."

Hikmet Saban, another Syrian refugee who reached Turkey, described the devastation in Taftanaz, located several kilometres outside the city of Idlib.

"Helicopters and tanks are bombarding continuously," he told Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency. "Taftanaz has been burnt to the ground for three days." Activists posted video they said showed a helicopter gunship firing a missile at Taftanaz and a mosque hit by shelling.

The escalating violence has dimmed hopes that the fighting, which the UN says has killed more than 9,000 people, will end anytime soon. The country appears to be spiralling toward civil war, which could bring a regional conflagration.

A vital geopolitical linchpin, Syria borders five other nations and has close ties to Iran and powerful militant groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Assad last week accepted a cease-fire deadline brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan. It calls for his forces to pull out of towns and cities by Tuesday and for everyone to lay down their arms by 6 a.m. local time Thursday.

Western leaders have cast doubt on Assad's intentions, suggesting he is playing for time and is not serious about the plan, which aims to pave the way for talks between the regime and the opposition on a political solution.

Syria denies the revolt is a popular uprising, saying it is facing a foreign conspiracy by armed gangs and terrorists who want to destroy the country.

The revolt began in March 2011 with mostly peaceful protests, but the violent government crackdown has led many to take up weapons. A fighting force called the Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors, is determined to bring down the regime by force of arms.

On Friday, Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, appeared to acknowledge the recent spike in violence, but again blamed terrorism.

Syria sent letters to the United Nations and UN Security Council that said "acts committed by terrorist groups escalated especially after the agreement over Kofi Annan's plan was reached," SANA reported.

But witnesses who streamed into Turkey said regime forces were driving the bloodshed.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 7, 2012 A23

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