Syrians flee northern town

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Thousands of Syrians fled the historic town of Maarat al-Numaan today to escape troops and tanks pushing into the north in a widening military campaign to crush protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

In the tribal east, where Syria's 380,000 barrels per day of oil is produced, tanks and armoured vehicles deployed in the city of Deir al-Zor and 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.

"Cars are continuing to stream out of Maarat al-Numaan in all directions," one witness told Reuters by phone. "People are loading them with everything: blankets, mattresses on roofs."

Syrian forces pushed towards the town of 100,000, which straddles the main north-south highway linking Damascus with Syria's second city Aleppo, after arresting hundreds of people in villages close to Jisr al-Shughour, near the border with Turkey, residents said.

The state news agency SANA said an army crackdown in Jisr al-Shughour, where the government said 120 security personnel were killed earlier this month, had restored security there and thousands of people were returning.

It also said the army had found a second mass grave in the town containing the bodies of soldiers and police killed by "armed terrorist groups".

Witnesses said the fighting broke out when residents and deserting security forces attacked a police compound in Jisr al-Shughour about 10 days ago after police killed 48 people. They said 60 police, including 20 deserters, were killed.

More than 8,500 Syrians, many from Jisr al-Shughour, have sought sanctuary in Turkey, which has set up four refugee camps across the border, about 12 miles from the town.

A 36-year-old Syrian who gave his name as Ahmed fled with his wife and six children to Turkey after learning troops had arrived in Jisr al-Shughour, near his village.

"We came here to protect our family. We're not against them (security forces) but they fight us like we were infidels," Ahmed, sunburnt and dressed in a dirty tracksuit, told Reuters in a narrow street in the Turkish border village of Guvecci.

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.

The state-run Anatolian news agency said an envoy from Assad, Hassan Turkmani, would visit Turkey on Wednesday for talks with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader had developed a close rapport with Assad but has grown increasingly critical of his military crackdown.

In Damascus, thousands of Assad supporters lined one of the capital's main thoroughfares and lifted a 2,300-metre-long tricolour Syrian flag, while waving pictures of the president. State media said it was a demonstration of national unity and "rejection of foreign interference in Syrian internal affairs."

Syrian rights groups say 1,300 civilians have been killed since the start of the uprising in March against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 41 years. One Syrian rights group, says more than 300 soldiers and police have also been killed.

The United Nations human rights office accused Syrian security forces today of brutally repressing protests through executions, mass arrests and torture.

"The most egregious reports concern the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians, including from snipers positioned on rooftops of public buildings and the deployment of tanks in areas densely populated by civilians," it said in a report to the UN Human Rights Council.

Othman al-Bedeiwi, a pharmacy professor Maarat al-Numaan, told Reuters by telephone yesterday around 70 per cent of residents had fled. He said helicopters had been ferrying troops to a staging camp several miles away.

On the edge of a limestone massif in an agricultural area in the northwest, Maarat al-Numaan is a centre of Muslim pilgrimage and historic site of a medieval massacre by Crusaders. In modern times it was the focus of a campaign to crush Islamist and leftist challengers to Bashar's father, the late Hafez al-Assad.

Syria has banned most foreign correspondents since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.

In the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, witnesses said several tanks deployed inside the provincial capital on the Euphrates River after security forces pulled out of the streets last week.

Protests there continued and a violent confrontation occurred this week between Assad supporters and protesters during which several people were seriously wounded, they added.

Rights campaigners said around 20 tanks and armoured vehicles deployed around the Iraq border town of Albu Kamal east of Deir al-Zor, but said there were no troops inside the town.

France and Britain have been pushing for a UN Security Council resolution to condemn Assad's repression of the protests. Russia and China have suggested they might use their veto power to kill the resolution.

As well as the refugees in Turkey, more than half of whom are women and children, activists say another 10,000 are sheltering inside Syria close to the border.

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 after large protests. The government has accused "armed groups" of burning crops in an act of sabotage.