TOPICS > World

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.


JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to Syria, whererebels have taken control of several key bordercrossings in the bloodiest 24 hours of fighting sincethe uprising began 16 months ago. The regime’sintelligence chief, injured in a bomb attack onWednesday, died today. He was the fourth figure inPresident Assad’s inner circle to be killed in thatblast.

And, as the crisis deepened, thousands are fleeingacross the border.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television Newsreports.

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


LINDSEY HILSUM: The congregation cheered the Syrian army, whom they see as theirprotectors, 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 thesouth, the suburb of Midan bears the scars of several days of fighting. The rebel FreeSyrian Army seized control earlier in the week, but, today, government forces took itback.

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

Tens of thousands of others, though, are driving to the border with Lebanon. They fearthat 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 beenspeaking to today say there’s nothing going on in Damascus. They’re supporters ofPresident 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 someonelurking and listening. Fear doesn’t stop at the border. Journalists leaving Damascus sayWednesday’s killing of defense officials was a turning point.

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

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

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

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

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

RAY SUAREZ: In New York today, the United Nations Security Council voted to renew the300-member observer force in Syria for another 30 days. Their mandate was set to expiretoday.

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

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