ISTANBUL Syrian refugees have crossed to Turkey in growing numbers in recent days, frightened by a government assault to drive rebels from the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs, officials said.
During the past year Turkey has turned against former friend President Bashar al-Assad over his brutal crackdown, and fears of massacres in Syrian towns and cities that are centres of opposition to his rule.
Close to 12,000 Syrians were registered at the camps set up to provide refuge for them in Turkey's southeast province of Hatay, after the arrival of around 800 during the past week, according to a Turkish foreign ministry official.
"After they saw what had happened in Baba Amr they were scared the same could happen to them. That's why they're trying to get out of the country," the official in the provincial capital of Antakya told Reuters by telephone.
Syrians were crossing into Turkey at a rate of 150 to 200 a day, the Turkish official said, more than three times the rate seen most days since late last year.
Those figures don't tell the full story as many people sneak in illegally to seek refuge with friends and relatives rather than enter the camps.
The influx is tiny compared with the half a million Iraqi Kurds who poured into Turkey to escape Saddam Hussein's wrath during the 1991 Gulf War. They returned only after Western powers, along with Turkish contingents, set up a safe haven on Iraqi territory.
Turkey has signalled that only if refugee flows approached such high levels might it consider discussing a similar safe haven on Syrian soil. But such an action would be fraught with hazards, since it could involve some form of military presence.
"FRIENDS OF SYRIA"
But Turkey opposes the involvement of Western allies in any action in Syria, and instead wants Arab countries to take a lead. Speaking during a visit to Tunis on Thursday President Abdullah Gul said: "Turkey is against intervention by any force from outside the region. Such an intervention could be subject to exploitation."
In Ankara, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu met on Wednesday night with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who has advocated creating an Arab peacekeeping force to intervene in Syria and arming the rebels.
During the coming weeks, Turkey is expected to host a second meeting of foreign ministers from the "Friends of Syria", grouping mostly Arab and Western governments, to follow up on talks in Tunis last month aimed at finding ways to rein in Assad.
"There are many, many people coming now - with babies, with children, women. They are coming because they are afraid of the Syrian army," said one Syrian man at the Boynuyogun refugee camp, a couple of hundred metres (yards) from the Orontes river dividing Syria and Turkey.
The 38-year-old man, who gave a false name to avoid reprisals, had fled across the river several months ago to escape the violence in his hometown of Jisr al-Shughour, but says he regularly sneaks back to take food and guns to friends still there.
"The army is shooting at anything, at shops, at people, anything," he told Reuters by telephone. "People are telling me that military commanders are telling their soldiers to fire on anyone."
He said water and electricity supplies to homes had been cut off, and mobile telephone services shut down.
(Additional reporting by Hamdi Istanbullu and Jonathon Burch)