- - Thursday, June 23, 2011

BOYNUYOGUN, TURKEY | Syrian troops advanced closer to the Turkish border Thursday, pushing more refugees into Turkey and forcing local officials to create a sixth refugee camp to accommodate another 15,000 homeless Syrians.

Meanwhile, anti-government protesters staged a general strike throughout Syria, including restive southern cities and some districts of the capital, Damascus, to protest a speech President Bashar Assad made Monday, a human rights activist said.

In addition, the European Union announced it would impose new sanctions against the Assad regime because of the brutality of its crackdown, which Syrian opposition activists say has killed more than 1,400 people since March.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey over the past two weeks to escape the regime’s relentless efforts to quash dissent in the northern region of the country.

“At the moment, we do not need international assistance. We have everything under control,” said Tekin Kucukali, head of the Turkish Red Crescent, at a press conference in Guvecci on Thursday. “We have the capacity to provide aid to 250,000 persons if necessary.”

Mr. Kucukali made a point of referring to the refugees as “guests” and referring to the camps as “tent villages.” “We will be building a facility to watch movies to provide educational assistance and playgrounds in this tent village,” he said.

The camps in southern Turkey’s Hatay province continue to remain closed to media and the public. The Hatay administration and Red Crescent will continue to “shield the Syrians for their own protection,” Mr. Kucukali said.

The Red Crescent said if the situation extends into the winter, it will need the assistance of other aid organizations to provide warmth.

Syrian soldiers advanced on the border village of Khirbet al-Jouz Thursday morning with tanks, snipers and foot soldiers, Turkish officials said.

The advance was the closest Syrian forces have come toward the border since the military pushed north into the area two weeks ago. The military backed by Syrian security forces moved against the town of Jisr al-Shughour on June 12.

“The Syrian army took the last mountain ridge before the Turkish border this morning and are in viewing distance of the camp,” said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch. “Most of the ones I was talking to just a few minutes ago have fled into Turkey. Certainly there was a lot of fear, and they fled in a panic this morning.”

Local Turkish Red Crescent officials said more than 11,000 Syrians are in the refugee camps, including 600 who arrived Thursday.

But a spokesman in Ankara told The Washington Times last week that the number of refugees already was three times that last week.

Protesters went on strike throughout Syria on Thursday to protest a recent speech in which Mr. Assad made vague promises about political reforms but accused protesters of being vandals, said Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, speaking from Cairo.

“Today the protesters inside Syria were called on to strike,” he said. “The security officials tried to force people to open their shops and offices, and some did that.

“Still, in general, all the shops are closed including the main [market] in Homs,” Mr. Qurabi said. “The people in Syria were waiting for an important speech, but unfortunately [Mr. Assad] shocked most of the Syrian people by still talking about the same [things].”

• Ruby Russell reported from Berlin.

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