The New York Times| Liam Stack | June 5, 2011
CAIRO — Syrian military forces were reported to have killed 38 people in the northern province of Idlib on Saturday and Sunday, demonstrators and rights activists said, as security forces appeared to redeploy from other towns to join the latest front in the harsh crackdown on a three-month-old popular uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Asaad.
Most of the deaths took place in Jisr al-Shoughour, where residents said 25 people had been killed by helicopter gunships bombarding the town and machine gun-mounted armored cars prowling the streets. Ten were reported to have died in the nearby village of Khan Sheikhoun, where tanks stood sentry between the main highway and the city center and a sniper perched in the minaret of one of the town’s main mosques. “
It is a big massacre,” said Abu Hussein, a resident of Jisr al-Shoughour with family in Khan Sheikhoun. “The civilians have no electricity or water, and there are no ambulances to hospitalize the wounded.”
Syria has been gripped since mid-March by a popular uprising against four decades of iron-fisted rule by the Assad family, and the government has responded to the revolt with a violent crackdown occasionally tempered by offers of political reform.
But there was little holding back over the weekend. The government unleashed the helicopter gunships, and residents in several cities said security forces appeared to move north to join the attack on its towns. Terrified residents streamed through the fields to escape the fighting, with dozens crossing the Turkish border and a large number reported arriving in the nearby port city of Latakia. On Sunday night, local activists said many of the fields had been set alight, and smoke hung over the town.
“They are trying to punish the residents for protesting,” said Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Association for Human Rights. “Dozens have been arrested over the last two days.”
The number of protesters in Idlib swelled so much in recent weeks that “the whole area is rising up,” said Wissam Tarif, a rights activist. Parts of the province had come to the kind of standstill associated with the besieged southern town of Dara’a, he said, where the arrest and torture of 15 schoolchildren for spraying antigovernment graffiti sparked the wave of uprisings.
Government tanks were reported to have pulled back slightly from the city of Hama on Sunday, a day after they were sent in to confront mourners for the 65 protesters killed Friday. The city was the site of a 1982 massacre when security forces commanded by President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, bombarded it in a siege that killed at least 10,000 people.
Bracing for a new onslaught, residents barricaded the streets with large trash-hauling bins on Saturday night, but a tense calm reigned on Sunday night.
Tanks remained “very close” to the city, said Radwan Ziadeh, an exiled human rights activist and visiting scholar at George Washington University, but residents reached by phone said many had appeared to move north. One resident, who gave his name as Abu Mohamed, said he watched 40 tanks move north from the city’s eastern approach along the road to Idlib, past barricades and burning tires laid in the road by protesters.
Tensions remained high in Hama, Abu Mohamed said. A general strike closed all the shops on Saturday and Sunday. And rumors swirled that the secret police were still lurking, recruiting cab drivers to kidnap “rebels” off the streets and infiltrating hospitals to kill the wounded.
Residents reported quiet in the central city of Homs as army units moved north toward Hama and Idlib, but its suburbs Rastan and Talbiseh remained under siege. Shelling killed at least 70 in Rastan last week, and both were reeling Sunday from days of arrests, said Abu Omar, a resident reached by phone. “They arrested almost everybody,” he said. “There are no more people.”