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More Than 30 Syrians Reported Killed By Troops In Retaliatory Strikes

An undated screen grab from YouTube appears to show Syrian security forces beating handcuffed and blindfolded detained men near the central city of Homs

An undated screen grab from YouTube appears to show Syrian security forces beating handcuffed and blindfolded detained men near the central city of Homs

Activists and witnesses say at least 32 people have been killed in Syria after government forces opened fire on people demonstrating against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

The figure could not be independently confirmed because foreign journalists have been banned from reporting inside the country.

The violence sent hundreds of Syrians fleeing across the border with Turkey, which has already taken in more than 4,000 refugees seeking to escape the brutal government crackdown.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said his country would continue to provide a safe haven for Syrians. "We really cannot close the doors to those people who run away for their lives and flee to Turkey. We have to welcome them, but how long it will last? That is another issue," he said.

In a June 9 television interview, Erdogan broke his silence on the regime's crackdown and described its action toward protesters as "savagery."

Helicopter Gunships

The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that documents anti-government protests in Syria, says 15 deaths occurred in the northwestern province of Idlib.

A Syrian opposition figure told The Associated Press by telephone that in the northern town of Maaret al-Numan, the army responded with tank shells when thousands of protesters confronted security officers and set the courthouse and police station ablaze.

Syria's state-run television appeared to confirm at least part of the report, saying gunmen opened fire on police stations in Maaret al-Numan, causing casualties among security officials.

A witness named Nawuf told The Associated Press that he saw, "at least five helicopters" fly over the town and open fire with machine guns on protesters. He said as demonstrators hid under bridges and in fields, the helicopter gunships continued to fire on empty streets.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the helicopters fired on the town after security forces on the ground killed five protesters but said no killings were reported in the assault by the helicopters.

Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said a number of residents told him that security forces fled one of their buildings when they saw a large number of demonstrators heading in their direction.

He said after protesters occupied the building, helicopters fired "two rockets" on it.

Speaking to Reuters by phone, a demonstrator said, "There were peaceful protests today (in Maarat) calling for freedom and for the downfall of the regime. The security forces let us protest, but when they saw the size of the demonstration grow, they opened fire to disperse us."

The state has consistently described the largely peaceful pro-democracy protests as the work of violent, armed gangs.

Retaliatory Strike

Maaret al-Numan is 35 kilometers from the town of Jisr al-Shughour, where thousands of troops and tanks have been massing for days. Today the government launched a retaliatory assault on the town and nearby villages.

Most residents of the town, which has a population of around 40,000, have fled in the last 24 hours after the state vowed to retaliate for what it said were the deaths of 120 officers and security personnel last week. State television today reported that a new military operation near the town had begun.

Syrians who escaped into Turkey described days of revolt and mayhem. They said police had fired on each other and soldiers had removed their uniforms rather than fire on protesters.

Rights groups say at least 1,300 people have been killed since the beginning of the uprising, in late January.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Mark Toner repeated the United States's condemnation of the violence. "We condemn the government of Syria's use of violence and call on it to respect the universal rights of its people. It's fundamentally the Syrian government's oppression and carrying out abuses against innocent civilians that's prompting the refugee flow,” he said.

On June 9. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Assad to refrain from violence as the United Nations called on the Syrian regime to halt its "assault on its own people."

Clinton, speaking at the end of a meeting on Libya in Abu Dhabi, said Assad can't prevent the changes wanted by the people of Syria.

"We are working with our partners in the international community to bring an end to the violence and to support political and economic reforms. President Assad may try to delay the changes under way in Syria, but he cannot reverse them," she said.

At the same meeting, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe accused Assad's regime of "massacring" its civilians who are seeking more freedom.

Refusing Ban's Calls

Meanwhile, the United Nations announced that President Assad is refusing to take Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's calls.

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky confirmed a report by Kuwait news agency KUNA that Ban tried to reach Assad on June 9 but was told that the president was "not available."

Nesirky said Ban had been trying to speak with Assad all week but was unable to get through to him.

Ban has urged Assad to end what he called "violent repression" and human rights abuses by Syrian forces.

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos has asked Syria to allow a humanitarian team into the country to assess the situation. After initially agreeing to consider the request, Assad has made no move to grant it, UN officials say.

Security Council diplomats met again in New York today in an attempt to break their deadlock on a resolution concerning the situation.

France and Britain have co-authored a draft resolution that would condemn Syria for human rights abuses and suggest that Syrian security forces might be guilty of crimes against humanity.

Russia and China are opposed to the measure.

Written by Heather Maher with agency reports