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As Crisis Deepens, Thousands Flee Syria to Escape Violence

July 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
After the bloodiest day of fighting since the Syrian uprising began 16 months ago, Syrian rebels have taken control of several key border checkpoints. As the crisis deepens, thousands of civilians have crossed those borders, fleeing to neighboring Lebanon and Iraq. Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to Syria, where rebels have taken control of several key border crossings in the bloodiest 24 hours of fighting since the uprising began 16 months ago. The regime’s intelligence chief, injured in a bomb attack on Wednesday, died today. He was the fourth figure in President Assad’s inner circle to be killed in that blast.

And, as the crisis deepened, thousands are fleeing across the border.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports.

LINDSEY HILSUM: He was the highest-ranking Christian in President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the funeral of Defense Minister Daoud Rajha was held at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross in Damascus this morning.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

LINDSEY HILSUM: The congregation cheered the Syrian army, whom they see as their protectors, even as they mourned the minister and three other security officials killed, apparently by a bomb, on Wednesday.

As the coffin was taken away for burial, they cheered President Assad. A mile or so to the south, the suburb of Midan bears the scars of several days of fighting. The rebel Free Syrian Army seized control earlier in the week, but, today, government forces took it back.

The rebels can mount hit-and-run attacks, but they still can’t hold onto territory in the capital, as the government counters with artillery and heavy weapons. A few people tentatively returned to their homes.

Tens of thousands of others, though, are driving to the border with Lebanon. They fear that this is just the beginning of the battle for Damascus.

People were crossing into Lebanon into the early hours. But many of those I have been speaking to today say there’s nothing going on in Damascus. They’re supporters of President Bashar al-Assad. They don’t want to say that there’s any threat to his regime. But they’re getting their families out nonetheless.

Are you telling me that there is no fighting in Damascus?

MAN: No, no, no, no, it’s OK. Relax. Nothing.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Everybody in Damascus is relaxed, are they?

MAN: Yes.

LINDSEY HILSUM: But maybe he had a reason for his reticence. We spotted someone lurking and listening. Fear doesn’t stop at the border. Journalists leaving Damascus say Wednesday’s killing of defense officials was a turning point.

SIGURD FALKENBERG MIKKELSEN, journalist: The bomb attack changed a lot. That made the situation very, very, very tense, meaning that people really did not go out at all unless they had to.

LINDSEY HILSUM: We met a group of Syrians already in Lebanon who’ve been buying mattresses for refugees who’ll be accommodated in schools. They were expecting 3,000 to arrive on buses in the coming hours.

WAEL AL-KHALDY, Higher Commission for Syrian Relief: I think Damascus is prepared now for a big battle. So Damascus is going to be out of civilians for sure I mean, going to be empty of civilians. So we should prepare ourselves for that situation. I think Damascus is going to be the last battle.

LINDSEY HILSUM: In the Syrian capital on this, the first Friday of Ramadan, opposition supporters demonstrated after midday prayers.

In some neighborhoods, they were met with bullets, government forces and the feared pro-Assad militia, the Shabiha, in action. This afternoon, funeral processions surged down the streets. Dozens were killed, fighters and activists regarded as martyrs by the rebels. They’re mourning their dead, as government supporters mourn theirs. And the killing isn’t over yet.

RAY SUAREZ: In New York today, the United Nations Security Council voted to renew the 300-member observer force in Syria for another 30 days. Their mandate was set to expire today.

And a Virginia court sentenced a man who spied on Syrian dissidents in the U.S. to 18 months in prison. Mohamad Soueid admitted he sent audio and video recordings to members of the Syria’s intelligence agency. He also met with President Assad in Syria to discuss dissident activity. Soueid was arrested and charged last year.

Find the story we reported about Soueid in December on our website.