HATAY, Turkey -- Wounded Syrians being treated in Hatay hospitals 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 survivors how many were noncombatants and how many 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 happened Tuesday, is part of what appears to be a government sweep of rebel strongholds in Syria's north ahead of a U.N.-brokered cease-fire Mr. Assad has promised to implement next week. Syria does not allow foreign reporters to enter, and a military cordon around the town makes it impossible to reach the site surreptitiously.
But interviews with fighters and civilians who have sought medical treatment in Hatay 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 detail how armed revolutionaries tried to resist the army assault.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry has said 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 Taftanaz battle 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, preparing 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 Tuesday morning, tanks advanced on the town, and helicopters above started firing at rebels. Bullets were "falling like rain," Mr. Razzan said. When the tanks struck the roadside bombs, rebels opened fire, raking pro-government troops with automatic rifles and machine guns. Rebels claim to have killed a number of soldiers, though they offered no 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 a free-fire zone as they went, witnesses said.
Survivors said soldiers burst into the home of Mahmoud Gazal and, using knives, killed him, his wife and their four children -- aged 2, 5, 6 and 8.
As troops pushed into the town center, the beleaguered rebels proved no match. "We have no bullets, no heavy weapons, no advanced radios," said a fighter called 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 comrades resisted until they were surrounded, at which point some climbed to the roof of a building to signal 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 soldiers arrived, he played dead, lying atop the rubble. He said soldiers fired into each body to be sure they were dead but ignored him for some reason and moved on.
With they left, he gathered his strength and crawled outside. 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 rebels. Some wounded hid in farmhouses till nightfall, then crawled through the fields toward Turkey.
Photos smuggled out by activists show a scene of destruction, with several showing bodies in a mass grave. One had been burned beyond recognition. Another's head was split open.
"In my entire neighborhood, only one house is still intact," Mr. Razzan said. For him, "there is no more Taftanaz."
First Published April 7, 2012 12:00 AM