Survivors tell of bloody aftermath to fight in Taftanaz, Syria

 

McClatchy Newspapers

HATAY, Turkey — Wounded Syrians being treated in hospitals here are providing detailed accounts of a bloody battle for the town of Taftanaz in northern Syria earlier this week that left the town devastated and scores of residents and an unknown number of soldiers dead.

Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad succeeded in gaining control of the town center after two hours of fierce combat, then summarily executed captives and burned bodies, according to the accounts. At least 82 people died, though it was unclear from the survivors how many of those were noncombatants and how many were anti-Assad fighters.

"There's nothing left," says Muhammad Razzan, who says he lost nearly 50 members of his extended family that day. "Only bodies. Bodies on the streets, bodies in the homes. We don't even know where everyone is."

The Taftanaz assault, which took place on Tuesday, is part of what appears to be a government sweep of rebel strongholds in Syria's north ahead of a U.N.-brokered ceasefire that Assad has promised to implement next week. Syria does not allow foreign reporters to enter the country, and a military cordon around the town makes it impossible for journalists to reach the site surreptitiously.

But interviews with fighters and civilians who've sought medical treatment here provide a rare, nearly contemporaneous account of the fighting and its aftermath. The accounts are uncommon because in addition to allegations that government forces indiscriminately killed civilians, they include details of how armed revolutionaries attempted to resist the Syrian army's assault.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry has said that record numbers of refugees are now crossing the border to flee the government offensive, with 2,700 crossing on Thursday alone. A total of 23,000 Syrians are now living in refugee camps inside Turkey, the Turkish government said.

Survivors of the fight at Taftanaz said the town had been aware for several days that the army was assaulting one nearby town after another, and that theirs was likely next. By Monday evening, about half the population of 15,000 had fled.

As the army approached, about 200 armed revolutionaries occupied the town center and prepared for the assault. They planted a ring of roadside bombs around the town's perimeter, positioned fighters on strategically located buildings, and waited.

At 7 o'clock Tuesday morning, tanks advanced on the town and helicopters buzzing above started firing at the rebels. Bullets were "falling like rain," Razzan said, and residents ran inside their homes. When the tanks struck the roadside bombs, rebels opened fire, raking the pro-government troops with automatic rifles and machine guns. Rebels claim to have killed a number of soldiers, though they offered no detailed count.

The army succeeded in breaking through the defenses after two hours of fierce combat. Pressing their assault street-by-street, pro-government soldiers headed for the town center, creating, witnesses said, a free-fire zone as they went.

One 46-year-old man who asked that he be identified only as Massous said he was at home when the army entered his neighborhood. "I ran with my family out to our car to try to escape," he said from his hospital bed in Turkey. "I drove out, but a tank saw me. It was about 300 meters away." A shell fired from the tank killed his father and mother instantly, he said. His 10-year-old daughter was injured. Massous said he left her behind because her wounds were not serious and the risk of fleeing to Turkey was enormous.

Another man, who called himself Abdul Rahman and said he was 23, said that he too was in his home when soldiers entered his neighborhood, firing wildly. "I climbed up to my roof and escaped, but they completely destroyed everything," he said. "My house burned down. There was a houseful of women next door to me, but I still don't know what happened to them."

Shot in the arm, he crawled to rebel fighters, who ferried him out of town.

Survivors also reported that soldiers burst into the home of Mahmoud Gazal and, using knives, killed him, his wife and their four children_ aged 2, 5, 6, 8.

As the troops pushed into the town center, the beleaguered rebels proved to be no match. "We have no bullets, no heavy weapons, no advanced radios," said a fighter known as Zigzig, who escaped with shrapnel wounds to his legs and is now hospitalized in Turkey. "We are just waiting to die. What can we do?"

In one compound, a fighter named Eyad said he and his comrades resisted until they were surrounded, at which point some of them climbed to the roof of a building to signal their surrender. But soldiers unleashed a barrage of fire, killing almost everyone inside the building and on top.

Eyad survived, but with a serious face wound. When the soldiers arrived, he played dead, lying prone atop the rubble. He said the soldiers fired into each body to make sure it was dead but for some reason ignored him and moved on.

With the soldiers gone, Eyad said he gathered his strength and crawled outside, leaving behind him a trail of blood. He made it to a rebel field hospital and rebel fighters then escorted him through a series of safe houses until he reached a Turkish hospital, where government doctors operated on his jaw.

By Tuesday evening, Syrian forces had taken control of the town and dispersed the revolutionaries. Some wounded hid in farmhouses, then after night fell crawled through the fields toward Turkey.

Photos smuggled out by activists show a scene of destruction, with several showing bodies lined up in a mass grave. One has been burned beyond recognition. Another's head is split open.

Another photo shows graffiti apparently left by the army: "Assad, or the country burns." It was signed "The Assad Death Brigade 76."

"In my entire neighborhood, only one house is still intact," Razzan said. For him, "there is no more Taftanaz."

Survivors said Taftanaz had been a site of anti-Assad fervor since the rule of Hafez Assad, the current president's father, who undertook a major military campaign in the area in 1980. Government troops had surrounded the town on three other occasions since the current revolt began a year ago, they said.

Until Tuesday, however, the rebels had held strong. Now they are scattered, though they remained defiant. One wounded rebel in a hospital here had used the cast on his arm to display his anger. "Don't think you can escape, Assad," the inscription on the cast said. "We will come for you."

(Gopal is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

With peace deadline nearing, Syria sends helicopters against rebels

In rare interviews, Syrian ex-soldiers talk of killing civilians

No accord on arming Syrian rebels at Friends of Syria meeting

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