AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces swept through a northwestern border region Sunday to stem an exodus of refugees to Turkey that is raising international pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, witnesses and a rights activist said.
Syrian human rights campaigner Ammar al-Qurabi also accused pro-government forces of attacking people who were helping the refugees as they tried to escape from a widening military assault to crush protests against Assad’s autocratic rule.
The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross was due in Damascus Sunday to discuss expanding its relief effort with Syrian officials..
The latest assault followed the biggest protests across Syria Friday in four months of anti-Assad unrest, despite his clampdown on public dissent. Security forces shot dead up to 19 protesters Friday, rights campaigners said.
Assad will make a speech Monday about “current circumstances,” the state news agency said, his first speech since April 16 and only his third since the start of the violence.
Authorities blame the violence on armed groups and Islamists, backed by foreign powers. Syria has barred most international journalists, making it difficult to verify accounts from activists and officials.
Qurabi said troops and gunmen loyal to Assad had blocked roads leading to the Turkish frontier in the rich arable region of Jisr al-Shughour, leaving thousands stranded.
“The Syrian army has spread around the border area to prevent frightened residents from fleeing across the border to Turkey,” he told Reuters.
People trying to help had come under attack around the small town of Bdama near the Turkish border which Syrian troops and gunmen loyal to Assad stormed Saturday, burning houses and arresting dozens, witnesses said.
“Militiamen close to the regime are attacking people in Bdama and the surrounding areas who are trying to deliver relief and food to thousands of refugees stuck along the border and trying to flee,” said Qurabi.
Qurabi’s comments could not be independently confirmed, but a local resident backed up his account.
“There are roadblocks everywhere in Bdama to prevent people from fleeing but villagers are finding other routes through valleys to escape to the Turkish border,” said Omar, a farmer from Bdama who managed to reach the border area.
Witnesses said pro-Assad forces were firing randomly, ransacking houses and burning crops in Jisr al-Shughour, an area known for its apple groves, olive trees and wheat.
“We received no bread today. There was one bakery operating in Bdama but it has been forced to shut. The ‘shabbiha’ (Assad’s gunmen) are shooting randomly,” one refugee, a carpenter who gave his name as Hammoud, told Reuters by telephone.
“One man in Bdama was injured today and we managed to smuggle him to hospital in Turkey. But many fear getting shot if they attempt to cross the border,” the refugee added.
Bdama is one of the nerve centers providing food and supplies to several thousand other Syrians who have escaped the violence from frontier villages but chose to take shelter in fields on the Syrian side of the boundary.
The number of refugees who have crossed into Turkey from Syria has reached 10,114, and another 10,000 are sheltering by the border just inside Syria, according to Turkish officials.
Sunni Muslim Turkey, seeking to restore its regional role, has improved its ties with Assad, who belongs to Syria’s minority Alawite sect, and backed his drive to seek peace with Israel and improve relations with the United States.
But the mass killings of Syrian Sunnis have made Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan increasingly critical of Assad.
Erdogan has warned Syria against repeating a brutal campaign of repression in the 1980s that killed thousands. He has also sent his foreign minister and the head of Turkey’s land forces to tour the border refugee region in the last several days.
The International Federation for Human Rights and the U.S.-based Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies said in a statement they had verified from local sources that Syrian forces had killed more than 130 people and arrested over 2,000 in Jisr al-Shughour and surrounding villages in the last few days.
Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), will arrive in Damascus Sunday for talks with Syrian officials on expanding its relief effort in the country, the aid agency said.
The two days of talks follow an appeal by the independent aid agency last week for greater access to the civilian population, including people who have been wounded or detained.
Syrian rights groups say at least 1,300 civilians have been killed and 10,000 people detained since March.
The Syrian Observatory for human rights has said more than 300 soldiers and police have also been killed. Other rights campaigners said tens of security personnel had been killed by loyalist troops for refusing to shoot at unarmed civilians.
Assad has increasingly been using the military to crush protests in areas that have been agitated by the killings. Central neighborhoods in the more mixed cities of Damascus and Aleppo, where security is intense, have not seen large protests.
In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, where tens of thousands marched Saturday in the funeral of two protesters killed on Friday, activists prepared for another big rally as large army garrisons were deployed around the city’s main entrances.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; editing by David Stamp and Jan Harvey