Assad hits refugees' escape route

By Alastair Beach

The Syrian regime widened its relentless crackdown against opposition strongholds yesterday by bombing a bridge used by refugees escaping to Lebanon and deploying tanks to pulverise two mosques in a town close to the Jordanian border.

People in Hirak, close to the southern city of Deraa, told the Independent that they had been surrounded by troops and security forces, as President Bashar al-Assad's troops battled gunmen from the rebel Free Syria Army.

"We're under siege," said a father-of-six as the sound of machinegun fire crackled in the distance. "They are firing shells at us and we are being attacked from the security headquarters."

Omar al-Arabi, 40, said Syrian army tanks had shelled two mosques in the town. One of the buildings, the Al-Omari Mosque, had been converted from an ancient Roman temple.

A second man from Hirak, which has been subject to clampdowns ever since its citizens joined the original uprising in nearby Deraa a year ago, pleaded for international intervention to protect citizens.

"If the whole international community keeps silent, Assad has permission to do whatever he wants," said the father-of-three.

According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a 15-year-old boy and five government soldiers were killed during the clashes in Hirak yesterday.

The organisation's chief, Rami Abdel Rahman, said that Syrian troops had destroyed a bridge being used to evacuate families escaping the violence in Homs.

The bridge crossed the Orontes river in the village of Rableh, 3km from the Lebanese border, where scores of traumatised families have been arriving during the past week.

In Homs, the International Committee for the Red Cross was still waiting for permission to enter the district of Baba Amr - five days after the Syrian regime said it had granted access to volunteers. According to the campaigning rights group Avaaz, other areas of the city were now being besieged by troop reinforcements. Yesterday, civilians found three unidentified bodies dumped in the city centre, the group said.

An activist from a district next to Baba Amr also claimed that members of the notorious Shabiha militias were burning bodies in an attempt to hide the evidence of war crimes. It was impossible to verify his claims. "We don't want to live in conditions like these," the man said. "We would rather die."

In a further evidence of Assad's widening crackdown, tanks reportedly encircled the town of Tibet al-Imam in Hama province while troops shelled Maaret al-Numan in northern Syria. At least 21 people were reported to have died across the country yesterday.

- Independent

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