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Fleeing crackdown, thousands of Syrians seek refuge in Turkey

Women and children arrive at a Turkish Red Crescent camp near the village of Yayladagi, just outside Syria.

Charla Jones/charla jones The Globe and Mail

The first news of Syria's offensive against protesters in the rebellious north came from crackling phone lines, as residents described burning farms, thudding tank shells, and roaring helicopters overhead.

Only fragmentary accounts emerged on Friday from Jisr al-Shughour, where Syrian authorities have cut off electricity and communications. Worried relatives on the Turkish side of the border repeatedly dialled the few people remaining in the nearby settlement of 50,000, largely abandoned as Syrian forces massed on the outskirts.

They could only reach people near the town, none of whom offered reassurance about what happened as columns of Syrian tanks and armoured personnel carriers started rolling forward after days of laying siege.

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"They are shooting at us," a Syrian ambulance driver said as he ferried wounded people toward the Turkish border. "A lot of people were murdered today. I don't know how many."

Human rights activists listed 32 dead in protests across Syria on Friday, part of a regular surge of violence after weekly prayers, but those figures included only an initial tally of the dead as government forces approached Jisr al-Shughour.

Trucks and buses streamed out of olive groves along the Turkish-Syrian border, carrying thousands of people fleeing the Syrian advance.

By nightfall, it was unclear if the government forces had fully taken control of the town where Syria says 120 of its security officials were killed on June 4.

A man who identified himself only as Adil, standing about 15 kilometres outside of Jisr al-Shughour, said the government forces killed one young man inside the town on Friday, and his funeral would be held on Saturday. He also described local fuel shortages in the area encircled by government forces.

Syrian television broadcasts on Friday evening said troops had reached the entrance to Jisr al-Shughour and arrested members of "armed groups," a vague description frequently used to support the regime's assertion that protesters are, in fact, terrorists.

A Turkish journalist who sympathizes with the Syrian government and regularly visits the country, Hasan Kabakulak, has recently tried to persuade foreign journalists that the protesters have limited support in Syria and that provocateurs are smuggling weapons - AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades - across the border from Turkey.

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Mr. Kabakulak displayed a video of a gruesome beheading, saying it proved the existence of the extremist gangs in Syria. However, both the attackers and victim shown in the video were wearing black shirts and black pants, prompting some activists to suggest that the incident was a grisly example of the infighting among security services.

A 16-year-old who slipped through the border, evading Turkish authorities who have rounded up Syrian escapees and confined them to camps, said he saw no sign of the extremist groups described by Syrian authorities. His family has a house in Jisr al-Shughour, he said, and he witnessed the moment when government forces started shooting protesters on June 3.

"The security men did not say anything, just started shooting protesters," said the teenager, who did not want to be identified. "The shooters were intelligence guys, with shaved heads and big beards, wearing black."

Another young man nodded as the teenager spoke, adding that his brother was killed with a gunshot to the head during the same incident.

Turkey has stepped up its efforts to prevent such messages from reaching the world. At a Turkish Red Crescent camp where some survivors previously shouted messages to journalists through a mesh fence, staffers set up tarpaulins to block the view and stitched up gaps with wire. Police enforced a strict perimeter, keeping residents away from the barrier.

Emre Onal, a British-educated foreign policy expert now running for election under the banner of Turkey's governing party, referred to a sheet of government talking points when asked why his country does not allow the refugees to speak freely.

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"Turkey rejects foreign intervention in Syria," Mr. Onal said. "Some measures by the Syrian government are inhuman, but we don't want instability. If these people [refugees]say something bad, it could have an effect inside Syria."

When asked whether the effect of people speaking out against the regime in Damascus might be positive, Mr. Onal looked skeptical.

"Turkey wants to speed up reforms in Syria, but not like this," Mr. Onal said, snapping his fingers abruptly. "Democracy is hard. It's not a utopia."

Some residents of Hatay province in Turkey have also expressed unease with the sheer volume of people trying to get away from Syria. Ankara is promising to leave its doors open as a humanitarian gesture; in recent days, an estimated 3,000 Syrians have crossed the border. Two camps have already sprung up and a third is reportedly under consideration.

A smuggler who often helps Syrians sneak across the border said on Friday night that another 5,000 people are massing on the other side, preparing to cross if the violence escalates.

Such reports prompted speculation that Turkey's openness cannot last. Hurriyet, a major daily newspaper, said that the government might set up a buffer zone along the border "if hundreds of thousands want to seek refuge."

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