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THE MIDEAST

Jordan: Syrian army shoots dead Syrian refugee boy

The family was making a desperate run across the border when Syrian troops opened fire. Bullets whizzed around them. The 6-year-old boy, holding his mother's hand, broke away and ran ahead. He was nearly at the border when he fell dead, a bullet in his neck, witnesses say.

The boy, killed in the early hours Friday, was the first Syrian trying to escape into Jordan to be shot to death by border guards, Jordanian officials and a Syrian rebel commander said.

Bilal el-Lababidi and his parents were in a group of around a dozen Syrians trying to sneak into Jordan just after midnight, the latest of more than 140,000 who have taken refuge in the neighboring kingdom from the Syrian regime's fierce crackdown on the rebellion against President Bashar Assad.

"He is a martyr, who is now in a better place. I'm sure he is in heaven," said el-Lababidi's mother before the boy's burial later Friday at a cemetery in the northern Jordanian city of Ramtha. She would only identify herself as Umm Bilal, or "mother of Bilal," as conservative women often do in public rather than using their real names.

"The criminal Bashar is the reason," she said, slapping her face with her fists as she wept. She wore a veil over her face and a traditional Muslim head-to-toe robe. "Bashar is killing his people and the whole world is watching and doing nothing."

Jordan's Information Minister Sameeh Maaytah, in Amman, initially identified the boy by the last name el-Labloubi and said he was three years old. But a member of the Syrian rebel Free Syrian Army who was now hosting Umm Bilal and her two younger, surviving sons at a house in northern Jordan corrected that. He said the boy was six with the last name el-Lababidi. The FSA member spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the group's presence in Jordan.

The family -- Bilal's father, mother, Bilal and his two younger brothers -- had been fleeing from the southern Syrian town of Daraa, which was where their country's uprising began 17 months ago and which has continued to be a major battleground between rebels and regime forces. Bilal's father is a corporal in the regime military but had decided to defect, the mother said.

They and the others in the group were slipping across farmland and olive groves between the Syrian town of Tal Shihab and the Jordanian border village of Turrah.

As their group neared the border, however, Syrian border troops opened fire and the refugees ran, Umm Bilal said. The soldiers sprayed the area with bullets, according to a Jordanian border officer and a relative of Bilal who made it into Jordan with his mother. Jordanian guards fired in the air to try to scare off the Syrian troops, the Jordanian officer said.

"Bullets were coming from all directions. It was scary. I didn't know if one hit me and I couldn't look back to see if the others were wounded," said the relative, a frail man who sported a long beard who spoke on condition he not be identified for fear of retaliation against the family in Syria.

Bilal was running with his mother, the relative said, toward the border, which in that area is marked by remnants of an old barbed wire-lined ditch. The barbed wire is old, with gaps, and is more of a marker than a barrier.

But then Bilal "slipped from his mother's hand" and went ahead and was shot just meters (yards) from the border, he said.

Umm Bilal said the Jordanians took her son in and tried to save him, "but he was already dead."

Bilal's father and most of the others in the group ran back into Syria amid the gunfire, Umm Bilal said.

The Jordanian border official said he believed that amid the firing, the boy was specifically targeted because he was closest the fence. "It looks like a sniper targeted him to scare the others," the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.

Syrian army troops frequently open fire at those trying to cross the border to stop them, but not always -- it depends on whether they are busy with quelling protests or rebels in nearby towns, the official said. Around 700 Syrians crossed on Thursday with no shots fired at them.

Last November, one woman was shot in the leg. In April, troops fired at a large group of around 900 refugees, wounding dozens, many of whom -- including women were then arrested and taken back into Syria.

But el-Lababidi is the first person to be killed, the border official and other Jordanian officials said. An FSA commander based in Turkey who monitors the border movements into Jordan, Ahmed Kassem, also said the boy was the first killed.