(MENAFN - Arab News) Syrian tanks and helicopters stormed the town of Jisr Al-Shughour on Sunday, residents said, and state television reported heavy clashes between army troops and gunmen opposed to President Bashar Assad.
More than 5,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the border and a UNHCR spokesman said the Red Crescent was preparing a fourth camp with room for 2,500 more. Witnesses said thousands of Syrians were sheltering near the border.
Residents of Jisr Al-Shughour said earlier that most of the town's 50,000 people had fled toward the Turkish border about 20 km away and tanks and helicopters were shelling and machine-gunning the town.
Army units defused bombs and explosive charges planted by gunmen on bridges and roads into the town, state television said. "Two members of the armed groups were killed, large numbers of them arrested, and lethal weapons in their possession seized."
State television said the forces uncovered mass graves of security men killed and buried by armed groups in Jisr Al-Shughour and said their bodies bore marks of "atrocities". It did not give details.
The government said last week that "armed gangs" had killed more than 120 security personnel in the town after large demonstrations there. Refugees and rights groups said the dead were mutinous soldiers, shot for refusing to fire on civilians.
"When the massacre happened in Jisr Al-Shughour the army split, or they started fighting each other and blamed it on us," a woman refugee, who refused to give her name, told Turkish news channel NTV.
Jisr Al-Shughour's streets were deserted at midday - residents said nearly everyone had fled in recent days - and there were piles of debris. Turkey has given sanctuary to more than 5,000 Syrians since the uprising began in mid-March, nearly all of them in the past week from the area around Jisr Al-Shughour. Hundreds more are hiding in the hills waiting to cross.
A resident who fled on Sunday said the army shelled Jisr Al-Shughour, then tanks and other heavy armor rolled in from two directions. As the troops advanced, he said, they fought about 60 army defectors, whose fate was unknown. He said about 200 unarmed men who were guarding the town are believed to have been either killed or detained.
Bassam, a tiler who fled to Turkey as troops approached the town, said troops burned wheat crops in three villages near Jisr Al-Shughour in a scorched-earth policy aimed at crushing the resistance of protesters in the area. Other refugees said troops killed or burned cows and sheep and burned crops on farmland around the village of Sarmaniya, south of Jisr Al-Shughour.
State news agency SANA said "armed terrorist groups" had burned land in Idlib province as part of a sabotage scheme.
The United States accused the Syrian government of creating a "humanitarian crisis" and called on it to halt its offensive and allow immediate access by the International Committee for the Red Cross to help refugees, detainees and the wounded.
Turkey has provided camps for refugees and sent the wounded to hospitals, but restricted access to the refugees, saying this is to protect their privacy. Thousands of people were gathering on the Syrian side of the border, according to an activist helping coordinate the movement of refugees. "The border area has turned practically into a buffer zone," said Abu Fadi.
Human rights groups say security forces have killed more than 1,100 Syrian civilians in increasingly bloody efforts to suppress demonstrations calling for Assad's removal, political freedom and an end to corruption and poverty.