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Damascus streets contrast sharply with border chaos

By the CNN Wire Staff
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A tale of two Syrias
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: CNN journalists are granted access to Syria, but with a "minder" in tow
  • EU imposes sanctions on seven more people, four firms linked to Syria's government
  • Pro-government demonstrators try to enter U.S. ambassador's residence, a source says
  • Twenty-six members of the security forces were buried Thursday, Syria says

Damascus, Syria (CNN) -- The scene inside Syria's capital Thursday contrasted sharply with the scene in recent days on the Turkish side of the border, where some 10,000 refugees have sought shelter and safety as unrest continues to shake the country.

CNN journalists entered Damascus Thursday after months of being barred from reporting inside the country. Accompanied on their video shoots by a government "minder," the journalists found life in the Old City appeared, at first glance, relatively normal.

Outside a restaurant, a speaker blared pro-government music. "We are your men, Bashar, you're the one who is protecting Syria," said the lyrics of one song in a reference to the president, Bashar al-Assad. The manager of the restaurant said it was a symbol of nationalism.

On the sidewalks, people were selling pro-government paraphernalia, including key chains, T-shirts and party hats emblazoned with pro-government slogans and the likeness of President Bashar al-Assad. Business is good, said the owner of one of the stands.

We just heard news that the army is sending the security forces to raid our camp as well, and everyone here is scared to death of this.
--Anti-government activist Jameel Saib.
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Some people expressed anger. One woman approached CNN journalists and said she wanted all Westerners out of her country; that they had no business meddling inside Syria.

The view at the border with Turkey, 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of the city, was far different. There, thousands of Syrians have arrived in recent weeks carrying few possessions. Many of them told stories of abuse and threats by the security forces and vowed not to return to their homes until al-Assad is gone.

Government officials have said the military has simply been targeting armed gangs. The officials asked why the international media has been focusing on the relatively small number of refugees when the Iraq war displaced more than 1 million people.

CNN has sought permission to travel Friday to the areas where anti-government demonstrations are usually held. Activists told CNN they plan to hold more such rallies on Friday.

In Damascus, a small group of demonstrators supporting the government gathered outside the residence of the U.S. ambassador Thursday, screaming insults and trying to climb the wall to enter the premises. They were stopped before they were able to breach the residence, a source at the U.S. Embassy here said.

Ambassador Robert Stephen Ford was not home at the time, the source said.

Meanwhile, Syria advanced its efforts to crush the uprising by protesters calling for governmental reforms.

Syrian forces moved Thursday into a village near the Turkish border, near where the more than 10,000 Syrians are living in refugee camps after fleeing an earlier military advance, an anti-government activist told CNN. The military rolled into Khirbet al-Jouz with tanks and armored personnel carriers just before dawn, said Jameel Saib, an anti-government activist living in a makeshift camp near the village.

CNN could not independently verify the report.

In Washington, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "very concerned by the reports that the Syrian military has surrounded and targeted the village," which is located roughly 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the Turkish border.

"If true, that aggressive action will only exacerbate the already unstable refugee situation in Syria," she said.

Clinton added that she has discussed the matter with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

"It just is very clear to us that unless the Syrian forces immediately end their attacks and their provocations that are not only now affecting their own citizens but endangering the potential border clashes, then we're going to see an escalation of conflict in the area," she said.

Davutoglu spoke by telephone Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, Turkish foreign ministry sources said, adding that the pair discussed recent developments and activity along the border.

CNN's access to Damascus came as the European Union voted Thursday to expand sanctions against Syria by freezing the assets of seven people and four businesses with connections to al-Assad.

The initial sanctions imposed in May froze the assets of 13 Syrian officials connected to al-Assad's government. The sanctions also imposed travel restrictions on the officials. Ten more people, including the president, were added to the list later that month.

The decision to expand the sanctions further was made "in view of the gravity of the situation in the country," an EU statement said.

The EU vote followed a televised address to the nation this week by al-Assad, who made vague promises of reform. He said he was "working on getting the military back to their barracks as soon as possible" but also warned the government would hold accountable whose who "plotted" in the bloodshed.

Demonstrations critical of al-Assad's government began months ago in the southern city of Daraa and were swiftly suppressed by security forces. Anti-government fervor caught on nationwide as more protests were met with tougher crackdowns.

After three months of protests, more than 1,100 have died, and thousands more have been jailed, according to human rights activists.

Thousands more have fled the fighting.

Syrian state-run news agency SANA said 26 "martyrs of the security forces" were buried Thursday after having been "targeted by armed terrorist groups in Jisr al-Shugur." Twenty others were buried Wednesday, SANA reported. Throughout the uprising, the government has described opposition leaders as armed criminals and terrorists.

At least 10,224 people, including more than 5,000 children, have crossed the border from Syria to Turkey, the Turkish Ministry of Disaster and Emergency Management said Thursday.

Five refugee camps have been established on the Turkish side of the Turkey-Syria border, the ministry said.

The residents in a refugee camp on the Syrian side of the border are either trying to flee to Turkey or to hide, said Saib, the anti-government activist.

In an address Wednesday on state television, Moallem, the Syrian foreign minister, lashed out at those who were critical of al-Assad's promise of reform.

Moallem said Syria would emerge through national dialogue as an "unprecedented democratic model." He also denied that Iran or Hezbollah was playing a role in the unrest.

To Syria's critics, Moallem said: "I only want to say to them one thing: stop interfering in Syrian affairs, don't provoke chaos, don't provoke strife. The Syrian people ... can make their own future away from you."

Meanwhile, a human rights campaigner told CNN that government workers and students were forced to attend rallies this week in support of al-Assad.

Ammar Qurabi, chairman of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, provided CNN with a copy Wednesday of what he said were leaked government documents that said any government workers who refused to attend would have their pay docked and would be considered absent from work for the day.

CNN could not confirm the authenticity of the documents. Syria has not responded to Qurabi's allegations.

Qurabi, who is from Syria but is in Egypt, said his organization received complaints from dozens of college students across the country who said they had been forced to attend the rallies or face losing academic credits.

Executives of pro-al-Assad corporations, such as Rami Makhlouf's SyriaTel, also required employees to attend the rallies and threatened to dock pay if they did not, Qurabi said.

State TV showed images Tuesday of thousands joining pro-regime rallies in Daraa, Aleppo and Homs, sites of violent clashes between demonstrators and the military. Some in the crowds chanted, "With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice for you, Bashar" and "God, Syria and Bashar only."

At the same time, there were reports of clashes between protesters and security forces in Homs, according to the Local Coordination Committee in Syria, a network of activists that promotes and documents demonstrations across the country.

CNN's Arwa Damon, Jill Dougherty, Yousuf Basil and Salma Abdelaziz contributed to this report.

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