ANTAKYA, Turkey (Reuters) - While Syrian government helicopters and tanks are pounding the western town of Haffeh and the surrounding villages, ground troops are rounding up young men and looting houses, according to Syrian rebels who have fled to Turkey.
Recovering at a hospital in the Turkish city of Antakya, a wounded Free Syrian Army fighter described the assault on Haffeh by government forces and how he was shot trying to rescue the wounded.
“First, helicopters attack the villages, later the tanks attack, and then at the end soldiers enter the houses, loot them and set fire to them,” said Mohammad, a 25-year-old fighter who had been shot through the shoulder.
At least 50 wounded have been smuggled across the border to Turkey from Haffeh over the past few days but many more are trapped by fierce fighting and those that try to escape are fired on by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, according to rebels in the southern Turkish province of Hatay.
The United States this week warned of a “potential massacre” in Haffeh after two reported mass killings in neighboring provinces in the past three weeks.
Corroborating accounts of what is happening inside Syria is difficult because the government tightly restricts foreign media access.
U.N. observers who arrived at the town on Tuesday to investigate said it was too dangerous to enter.
Mohammad, who like all the rebels interviewed gave only one name for fear that Assad’s forces would retaliate against his relatives in Syria, recounted the moment he was hit.
“We were trying to bring out the wounded but I got shot in the front and the bullet exited through the back,” said Mohammad, pointing to his heavily bandaged left shoulder.
Sporting a thick black beard characteristic of many of the rebels and dressed only in blue tracksuit trousers, Mohammad said Assad’s troops were humiliating Sunni Muslim families during searches.
“The troops are arresting the men and pulling the headscarves off our women’s heads. They know this is insulting to our women,” he said. “Assad wants to weaken the resolve of the Sunni communities.”
Assad and most of his ruling elite and top commanders belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam.
In the bed next to him, another wounded man grimaces as he tries to turn over. He motions to say he is too tired to talk.
Their rescuers describe how they smuggled the men through the hills on Sunday and across the Turkish border, some 25 km from Haffeh. They said many more had been left behind.
“About 40-50 wounded people have been brought across in the last few days but many more we had to leave there. One woman was wounded and had to be carried for three days. She is now in a hospital in Turkey,” said Fayez, another rebel.
“It’s becoming really difficult to move the wounded across.”
Syrian troops have laid mines along the border with Hatay over the past few months to stop rebels from entering and civilians from escaping.
Over the past week, they have also been burning wooded areas at key crossing points to flush out militants and make it easier to spot the steady flow of wounded rebels, civilians and refugees who have been crossing into Turkey since the uprising in Syria began some 15 months ago.
More than 28,000 Syrians are now living in camps inside Turkey, according to the government’s disaster and emergency organization. Some 150 people are currently being treated in hospital.
At another nearby hospital in Antakya, 18-year-old Yousuf said he was wounded while protesting against the government in his village of Kafr Nabuda, near the town of Hama, one of the towns that has borne the brunt of Assad’s crackdown.
“There was a demonstration 15 days ago and two security vehicles drove into the village. First they started firing on the crowd and then they drove their vehicles into the people,” said Yousuf.
“Some were hit by bullets. I was knocked to the ground by one of the vehicles,” he said. His left leg was broken in seven different places.
His 22-year-old brother Assef stands at his bedside and explains how he deserted the Syrian army nine months ago because he saw the army killing civilians.
Now a member of the Free Syrian Army, Assef says he hides in the mountains with other rebels, and comes down to defend the villages when Assad’s troops move in.
“All the villages around Hama are surrounded by Assad’s security forces. When there is any kind of demonstration, the troops move in,” said Assef.
“They go into a village, wander around and if they like the look of you they leave you alone, but if they don’t like the look of you they take you with them. They demolish your house and they burn your fields.”
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Kevin Liffey