UN says Syrian villages deserted after unrest

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Syrians have deserted the villages surrounding the northwest city of Jisr al-Shughur, where government troops crushed protests earlier this month, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) took part in a mission organised by the Syrian government to Jisr al-Shughur, near the border with Turkey.

"A UNHCR staff member reported that villages were increasingly empty from around 40 kilometres (25 miles) from Jisr al-Shughur," said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards.

"There was no evidence of people working in the fields."

The city of Jisr al-Shughur was also "almost deserted, with most shops shuttered and closed," he added.

The refugee agency explained that while no displaced populations were encountered, the fact that the city and surrounding villages were virtually empty appeared to indicate significant displacement.

UNHCR staff met briefly with staff of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent who described shortages of food and medicine in the area, but the mission was not able to conduct any humanitarian assessments.

The bloody crackdown on protesters against the regime of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad has led to violent clashes as the government has dispatched troops to put down the demonstrations in cities around the country.

Since June 7, some 500 to 1,000 people have been crossing from Syria into Turkey daily to escape the violence. More than 10,000 Syrian refugees are currently sheltered by Turkish authorities in four camps along the border of the two countries.

An inter-agency assessment mission to southeast Turkey last weekend hailed the efforts of the Turkish authorities and Turkish Red Crescent to provide protection and shelter and cater for the needs of the Syrian refugees, UNHCR said.

"However, our concerns are that many of these people are severely traumatized and that there are many vulnerable groups needing help - in particular women alone with their children, who represent over 50 percent of the population," it added.

The UN agency said the Syrian refugees spoke about family members being killed or having gone missing or into hiding. They also gave accounts of targeted assassinations, civilians getting killed in crossfire, torture and humiliation by the military.

"Most of these people had lost virtually all their belongings and property. In many cases their livestock were shot, fields were torched, and homes and business destroyed or confiscated," the UNHCR said.

The Syrian government's strong-arm response to anti-regime protests has led to more than 1,300 civilian deaths and the arrest of some 10,000 people, according to Syrian rights groups.

© 2011 AFP

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