Syrians carry the coffin of 13-year-old Ahmad bin Muhsin Qarush during his funeral on March 24
Syrians carry the coffin of 13-year-old Ahmad bin Muhsin Qarush during his funeral on March 24, who was reportedly killed two days earlier in shelling by regime forces in the northwestern city of Sermin. © Ricardo Garcia Vilanova - AFP/File
Syrians carry the coffin of 13-year-old Ahmad bin Muhsin Qarush during his funeral on March 24
Antonio Pampliega, AFP
Last updated: March 26, 2012

Sermin, a Syrian town left reeling in shock

The stench of death hangs over the northern Syrian town of Sermin two days after a fierce assault by government troops who methodically tracked down and killed rebels and those suspected of backing them.

On Saturday an AFP reporter entered Sermin, just eight kilometres (five miles) east of the rebel stronghold of Idlib, to find streets strewn with rubble and craters left by the shells and mortar rounds the army used to pound the town.

Residents said that for two days, 2,000 regular army soldiers backed by 90 tanks went from house to house, hunting down rebel fighters and their supporters and bringing Sermin to its knees.

The gouge marks made by the tracked vehicles on the road surface are clearly visible.

"The soldiers dragged three people from one house and shot them dead with machineguns. Then they doused them with petrol and set them on fire, right there on the streets for everyone to see," a shaken Abu Omar said.

A neighbour had a gruesome tale of one incident during those two terrible days.

"The soldiers stormed a clandestine hospital and found four fighters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) who were wounded. They shot them until they ran out of ammunition," he said.

Bloodstained bandages still litter the floor and the "hospital" beds.

Residents who survived the horror of the assault spoke of civilians who tried to flee Sermin but who were killed by snipers who shot at anything that moved.

"The snipers fired indiscriminately on all those who were trying to escape. They shot them over and over again until there wasn't a drop of blood left in them," said Yussef.

The FSA rebels and the government forces fought street by street and house by house.

"But the fighting didn't last long because the FSA men were unable to withstand the assault by Assad's forces," said Abu Omar.

"When they saw they were being overrun they pulled out. It was after they were gone that the summary executions, arrests and beatings began," he added.

The mosque was hit by tank fire, leaving two craters as deep as the size of a car. The ground is now littered with debris from the centuries-old walls of the mosque that dates from the Omayyad period.

It was there that Mahmud Ali Alu was killed, his blood washed by water from a pipe used to cleanse the flagstones.

"Mahmud was praying at the mosque when the attack began. When he tried to flee they shot him down like a dog, just near the door," said the muezzin who calls Muslims to prayer.

"The soldiers entered the mosque and tore up several copies of the Koran," the Muslim holy book, he claimed.

Those Sermin residents who stayed behind -- around a third of the town's 15,000-strong population before the assault -- were doing their best to clean up the streets.

Many sought to retrieve objects of value from the rubble of their homes as children held up shards of shrapnel and spent cartridge casings from Kalashnikov assault rifles.

Cries of "Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!" (God is greatest) shattered the silence as around 100 people escorted a body covered in a shroud.

It was that of a boy, 13-year-old Ahmad bin Mohsen Qarush, who was riddled with shrapnel when a shell exploded. He was just one of 17 people found dead in the town.

Ahmad's uncle explained what had happened.

"He was at home when the tanks began firing on Thursday at around three-thirty in the afternoon. He was killed at around four.

"We didn't bury him before because we wanted to stay with him and take the time to tell him 'goodbye'."

Ahmad's brother fired off a full magazine from his Kalashnikov into the sky as their mother wept in a corner of the cemetery, surrounded by women.

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