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Syrian Refugee Exodus Continues as Tanks, Troops Push Into More Towns

June 14, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syrian refugees continued to stream across the border into Turkey Tuesday, fleeing the military's drive to crush anti-government demonstrations in northern towns and villages. Margaret Warner reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad expanded his crackdown in rebellious northern towns today. The regime’s push could snuff out any chance the uprising could gain a base for a wider armed rebellion.

Margaret Warner has the latest.

MARGARET WARNER: Syrian refugees continued to stream across the border into Turkey today, as Syrian government troops sought to tighten their hold on more northern towns and villages.

Over the weekend, elite Syrian units moved into Jisr Al-Shugur. Syrian state television showed the town of 40,000 nearly deserted. Just 10 days ago, it was the scene of large demonstrations against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

A refugee described the government’s harsh response.

MAN (through translator): When we are walking in the streets shouting we want freedom, and the people want him to fall down, we didn’t — we didn’t want, we don’t Bashar al-Assad, the security feel angry and kill the people.

MARGARET WARNER: Today, amid empty streets and shuttered storefronts in Jisr Al-Shugur, state television broadcast what it said were captured weapons, explosives and uniforms.

Syrian forces are also moving on nearby Maaret al-Numan, which is bisected by the main road between the capital, Damascus, and Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city. The Syrian president seems to have dispensed with any notion of a political solution. Unconfirmed reports from inside Syria today said his forces were killing people indiscriminately, slaughtering livestock and razing buildings.

Thousands of Syrians have fled the carnage. Some are crossing illegally into Turkey to buy food, but returning home at day’s end. But others are flooding overtaxed refugee camps on the Turkish side of the border. More than 8,500 Syrians are there now. An aide worker said they are the lucky ones.

NEIL SAMMONDS, Amnesty International: On the other side of the border over in Syria, we have maybe about 10,000 people. That’s more than who have come across the border. And they’re still living kind of to the elements.

MARGARET WARNER: In Washington, State Department Spokesman Mark Toner dismissed fears that civil war could follow if Assad fell.

MARK TONER, State Department spokesman: To say that Assad is somehow the glue that is keeping the country together, I think, is — is — is not taking into full account the violence and repression that he’s using to — to crush any — any aspirations of the Syrian people. He’s certainly lost all credibility as a reformer, and he’s diminished his government’s image around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: But that image seems undimmed in leadership circles in one nation: Iran.

In a statement today, Secretary of State Clinton accused Iran of aiding Assad in his crackdown. In Tehran, a Foreign Ministry spokesman responded with a blunt warning to the U.S.

RAMIN MEHMANPARAST, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman (through translator): Americans are not entitled to have military intervention in any country in the region, including Syria. We think the Syrian issue is an internal matter.

MARGARET WARNER: The Iranians are experienced at crushing pro-democracy dissent. Two years ago this week, after a fraud-ridden presidential vote, the Green Revolution erupted in Iran. The regime responded with brutal force.