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Wounded refugees flee Syria's 'death machine'

Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan for their lives described a dramatic escalation in violence and a mounting toll of dead and wounded in the southern city of Daraa and the country's battered central region.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Syrian refugees fleeing to Jordan for their lives described a dramatic escalation in violence and a mounting toll of dead and wounded in the southern city of Daraa and the country's battered central region.

Medical workers in neighboring Jordan prepared blood donations to send to Daraa, the city where the uprising against President Bashar Assad erupted nearly a year ago, as the regime struggled to extinguish major pockets of dissent with intensive shelling.

Activists said at least 26 civilians were killed Friday, many of them in the rebellious central city of Homs, where shells slammed into rebel-held residential areas.

The fighting in Homs, coupled with fresh violence in Daraa, has triggered a new wave of wounded refugees crossing the border into Jordan.

"Government troops are shelling everything, whether it's buildings, people, houses. They consider us nothing. They want to eliminate us totally," said Seif, a 22-year-old who was receiving medical treatment in a Jordanian hospital along with other Syrian refugees.

Seif said he was working with army defectors from the Free Syrian Army, helping retrieve the wounded from collapsed buildings and homes, when he was hit by shrapnel in his leg. He could not receive medical treatment in Syria, fearing he would be arrested and killed by pro-Assad gunmen.

"Our crime was helping people," said Seif, who gave only his first name for fear of reprisals by Assad's government. "But the regime accuses us of being terrorists."

Attacks on Daraa, where the uprising was touched off last March by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on the walls of the provincial capital, have escalated in the past few days.

Mohamed Ahmed Iyad of the Jordanian aid group Kitab and Sunna, which provides aid to some 10,000 Syrians in Jordan, said his group was preparing blood bags and other medical supplies to send to Daraa.

In the past two days alone, 170 families — around 850 people — have fled to Ramtha, located just seven miles from the Syrian border, Iyad said. Most were from Daraa.

Syria has seen one of the bloodiest crackdowns since the wave of Arab uprisings began more than a year ago. The U.N. says more than 5,400 people were killed in Syria last year alone, and the number of dead and injured continues to rise daily. In addition, 25,000 people are estimated to have sought refuge in neighboring countries and more than 70,000 are internally displaced.

By contrast, deaths in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen have numbered in the hundreds. While Libya's toll is unknown and likely higher than Syria's, the conflict differed there: Early on, it became an outright civil war between two armed sides.

Homs, a province in central Syria that stretches from the border with Lebanon in the west to the frontiers with Iraq and Jordan in the east, has been one of the key centers of opposition to Assad.

'Bombed and shelled'
As the uprising has become more militarized in recent months, with army defectors battling regime forces almost daily, the rebels have taken control of small parts of the province, including neighborhoods in the city of Homs and the nearby town of Rastan.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and other activists said shells slammed into the Homs neighborhoods of Baba Amr, Bayadah, Khaldiyeh and Inshaat on Friday, killing at least 13 people. Syrian troops have been attacking the neighborhoods since Feb. 4.

Two people were killed by security forces in Daraa, and 11 others in various attacks across the country, the group said. Syria has banned most foreign journalists and keeps tight restrictions on the local press, making verification of death toll reports impossible.

Abu Majed, 55, fled with five members of his family to Ramtha from Homs this week, managing to slip out during a two-hour lull in the bombing.

"We feared that we, too, would join the others whose homes had been bombed and shelled and we'd end up under the piles of rubble," the gray-haired man said from a rented apartment in Ramtha, which his family shares with other Syrian refugees.

Abu Majed urged European and U.S. citizens to pressure their governments to save the Syrian people from the regime's brutality.

But diplomacy has so far failed to bring an end to the violence in Syria, which the government blames on armed "terrorists" acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country.

The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday on a nonbinding resolution backing an Arab League plan calling for Assad to step down and strongly condemning human rights violations by his regime.

Russia and China, who vetoed a similar resolution in the Security Council, voted against the General Assembly measure.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton noted Thursday's U.N. vote, but lamented that "in the face of this global condemnation, the regime in Damascus appears to be escalating its assaults on civilians."

"Those who are suffering cannot get access to the humanitarian assistance they need and deserve," she told reporters, adding that the U.S. "will keep working to pressure and isolate the regime, to support the opposition and to provide relief to the people of Syria." She said she would work toward that goal at next week's "Friends of Syria" conference in Tunisia.

Britain and France urged Syria's divided opposition to unite and said it needs more international support to resist the deadly government crackdown.

"What is happening in Syria is appalling," British Prime Minister David Cameron told a joint news conference Friday in Paris with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. "I'm not satisfied that we are taking all the action we can."

"We cannot bring about a Syrian revolution ... if the Syrian revolution does not make an effort to rally together and organize so that we can better help them," Sarkozy said.

Cameron said Britain is sending food rations for 20,000 people and medical supplies for those affected by fighting in Homs and elsewhere. The aid will include emergency drinking water and essential household items for refugees forced to leave their homes because of fighting.

'Death machine'
At the hospital in Ramtha, newly installed gates now protect the hospital rooms where wounded Syrians are being treated, guarded by Jordanian security police.

Activist Abu Suhaib, 37, said he and several others were hit with shrapnel after a missile struck an area in Daraa where the men had fled. He lost a foot and had his leg gouged in the attack.

"The Syrian military is targeting buildings and homes with the intention of killing Daraa's citizens," said the bearded man, who would not give his full name for fear of reprisals.

Abu Suhaib said he was moved by activists from one safe house to another inside Daraa until they could slip him over the border and the Jordanian army brought him to Ramtha's hospital.

Abu Majed, at the rented apartment, said that left alone, the Syrian regime would move its "death machine" from one city to the next.

"Assad's last mission is to turn Syria into rubble, nothingness," he said.

Karam reported from Beirut. AP reporter Bradley Klapper contributed to this report from Washington.