Amman: Syrian troops massed near the Turkish border, witnesses said on Thursday, raising tensions with Ankara as President Bashar al-Assad uses increasing military force against a popular revolt.
Hundreds of terrified refugees crossed into Turkey to escape an army assault, witnesses said. Syrian troops stormed the village of Managh, in a rural region just north of the commercial hub of Aleppo, residents said.
"I was contacted by relatives from Managh (15 km south of the border). Armored personnel carriers are firing their machineguns randomly and people are fleeing the village in all directions," an Aleppo resident said.
Sunni Turkey has become increasingly critical of Assad, from Syria`s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Islam, after previously backing him in his drive to seek peace with Israel and improve relations with the United States. Assad also opened the Syrian market to Turkish goods.
A Turkish Red Crescent official told reporters about 600 Syrians had crossed the border on Thursday morning.
"They (refugees) are running in panic. They have seen what happened to their villages," said one refugee, a farmer from the Jisr al-Shugour area who gave his name as Maan.
He was referring to a scorched earth military campaign in the arable hill region southwest of Aleppo, during which rights groups say Syrian security forces have killed more than 130 civilians and arrested 2,000. Some 1,300 civilians have been killed across Syria since mid-March, they added.
Reuters reporters saw half a dozen Syrian troops mounting a three-storey building on a hill overlooking the border, directly opposite the Turkish village of Guvecci. The building had been unoccupied and someone had hoisted a Turkish flag on it.
The Syrian troops hauled down the Turkish flag and replaced it with a Syrian one. They stayed through the morning before withdrawing shortly before noon. Within an hour four busloads of troops arrived with a pick-up truck which had a machinegun mounted on the back.
On the slope below the watchtower Syrian refugee families were camped just inside Syrian territory, but the soldiers in the watchtower did not approach them. Reuters journalists in Guvecci saw around five Syrian army armored personnel carriers wending their way through the hills on the Syrian side.
"They have never been this close before," said Reuters Television journalist Omer Berberoglu. "But they didn`t come down to where the refugees were."
A photographer heard three bursts of machinegun fire at around 10.30 am (O730 GMT). It was unclear who was shooting or what the targets were.
GROWING PROTESTS IN THE NORTH
Protests have grown in northern areas bordering Turkey following military assaults on towns and villages in the Jisr al-Shughour region of Idlib province to the west of Aleppo that had sent more than 10,000 fleeing to Turkey.
On the 100th day of an uprising that has posed the gravest challenge to Assad`s rule, soldiers and secret police backed by armored vehicles set up road blocks on Wednesday along the main road from Aleppo to Turkey, a major route for container traffic from Europe to the Middle East. They arrested tens of people in the Heitan area north of Aleppo, residents said.
One resident, a physician, told Reuters by telephone: "The regime is trying to pre-empt unrest in Aleppo by cutting off logistics with Turkey. A lot of people here use Turkish mobile phone networks to escape Syrian spying on their calls and have family links with Turkey. There are also many old smuggling routes that people could use to flee."
Central neighbourhoods of Aleppo, a largely Sunni city with a significant minority population, have been mostly free of protests, in part due to a heavy security presence and a continuing alliance between Sunni business families and Syria`s ruling Alawite hierarchy.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that since June 7, some 500-1,500 people had fled daily across Syria`s 840-km (520-mile) border with Turkey.
A country of 20 million, Syria is largely Sunni, and the protests have been biggest in mostly Sunni rural areas and towns and cities, as opposed to mixed areas.
Analysts say there is a high risk that Syria, with its mix of Sunni, Kurdish, Alawite and Christians, could slip into war as Assad increasingly relies on loyalist Alawite troops and irregular forces known as `shabbiha`.
A large part of the Sunni community is resentful of privileges granted to minority Alawites who have also dominated the security apparatus during the 41 years of Assad dynasty rule and are wary of Assad`s policy of aligning Syria further with Shi`ite Iran and Lebanon`s Hezbollah guerrillas.
BAN SAYS ASSAD LOSING CREDIBILITY
Turkey had warned Assad against repeating mass killings in cities witnessed during the rule of his father in the 1980s. A senior Turkish official said on Sunday that Assad had less than a week to start implementing long-promised political reforms before foreign intervention began, without elaborating.
Syria`s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem on Wednesday played down any possibility of international intervention against his country. He asked Turkey to reconsider its response to a speech this week by Assad in which Turkish President Abdullah Gul said Assad`s promises of reforms were not enough.
In his third speech since the start of the uprising, Assad promised reforms but these were seen by opponents and world leaders as too little, too late and too vague.
Assad issued an amnesty the next day, which human rights lawyers said covered mainly drug dealers, tax evaders and thieves across Syria.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Assad was running low on credibility, after his pledges for reform and engaging in dialogue with pro-democracy protesters had yet to bear fruit.