Syrian Army reinforces around restive north town

The military crackdown has forced refugees to stream north across the border into Turkey.

Amman: Syrian tanks and armored vehicles reinforced positions around the northern town of Maarat al-Numaan on Thursday after thousands of people fled President Bashar al-Assad`s crackdown on dissent.

Residents and a Syrian rights group said dozens of tanks and personnel carriers also deployed around Khan Sheikhoun, a town about 20 miles south of Maarat al-Numaan on the main north-south highway linking Damascus and Aleppo.

The military crackdown has forced thousands of refugees to stream north across the border into Turkey, where Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu was holding talks with a Syrian envoy at which he was expected to call for a halt to the repression.

Syrian rights groups say 1,300 civilians and more than 300 soldiers and police have been killed since protests, inspired by Arab uprising which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, broke out in March against 41 years of rule by the Assad family.

Shi`ite Assad, an ally of Iran and supporter of militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, faces international condemnation but the only concrete response to the violence has been U.S. and EU sanctions against the president and his close officials.

He has made vague promises of reform, while sending troops to crush protest centers one at time. The latest focus of the military crackdown has been in the northwest of the country, around the town of Jisr al-Shughour where authorities say 120 security personnel were killed earlier this month.

Residents say Syrian forces have arrested hundreds of people in villages close to Jisr al-Shughour after an assault on the town on Sunday, and are now moving toward Maarat al-Numaan.

Troops were deployed in Khan Sheikhoun and in villages to the east and west of Maarat al-Numaan, while others were being airlifted to a staging camp 2 km away, they said.

"The troops are firing randomly at the outskirts of al-Maarat al-Numaan to scare the population, which drove more people to flee tonight," one witness in the village of Maarshamsha on the edge of Maarat al-Numaan told Reuters by telephone late on Wednesday.

He said the gunfire killed one man, Mohammad al-Abdallah, and that the shooting was so heavy that he had to be buried in the backyard of his house.

In the conservative Damascus suburb of Harasta, security forces fired live ammunition to disperse a night protest by 200 women demanding the release of their husbands and relatives, arrested in an intensifying security sweep to put down the three-month uprising, a witness said.

"They carried placards saying `Where is my husband?` and `Where is my brother?` and pictures of the prisoners. No one was hurt but it was barely 10 minutes into the demonstration when they opened fire," said the witness.

Destination Turkey

Maarat al-Numaan`s residents said thousands of people headed to Aleppo and to Turkey, adding to a refugee flow that started in anticipation of the military assault on Jisr al-Shughour.

The official state news agency said on Wednesday thousands of people were returning to Jisr al-Shughour. But Turkish officials said 8,500 Syrians, many from that town, were still in Turkey, which has set up four refugee camps.

Refugees said there had been no mass movement back and another 10,000 were sheltering inside Syria close to the border.

"The Turks are not letting us in as before. Otherwise thousands more would cross," said Khaled, one of the refugees on the Syrian side who had escaped Jisr al-Shughour.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited a border camp in Yayladagi, about 20 km from Jisr al-Shughour, on Wednesday and talked to refugees, including wounded men lying on beds in camp hospitals.

"I`ll talk to Turkmani (Assad`s envoy) and will share with him with all frankness what I saw. We are seeing a humanitarian situation here and developments are concerning," Davutoglu told reporters after visiting the camp.

A news agency correspondent said Turkish authorities have tightened control over the border, making it harder for Syrians to cross unofficially.

A Turkish Red Crescent official, who requested anonymity, said more tent camps were being prepared at the eastern end of the 800 km border, near the Turkish city of Mardin, far from where the current influx of refugees is concentrated.

Fleeing refugees described shootings by troops and gunmen loyal to Assad, known as "shabbiha," and the burning of land and crops in a scorched earth policy to subdue people of the region. The government has accused "armed groups" of burning crops.

In the tribal east, where Syria`s 380,000 barrels per day of oil is produced, tanks and armored vehicles pulled back from the city of Deir al-Zor and from around Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, a week after tens of thousands of people took to the streets there demanding an end to Assad`s autocratic rule.

"The authorities are negotiating with the leaders of the street demonstrations in Albu Kamal to try and avoid an assault," one activist in the region said.

The protests erupted on March 18 in the southern city of Deraa on the border with Jordan, which was later attacked by forces loyal to Assad. Witnesses said the Deraa border crossing with Jordan partially re-opened to cargo traffic on Thursday.

Bureau Report

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