AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian tanks and armoured vehicles reinforced positions around the northern town of Maarat al-Numaan on Thursday after thousands of people fled President Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on dissent.
Residents and a Syrian rights group said dozens of tanks and personnel carriers deployed around Khan Sheikhoun, a town about 20 miles (30 km) south of Maarat al-Numaan on the main highway linking Damascus and Aleppo, as well as to the east and the west.
The military crackdown has forced thousands of refugees to stream north across the border into Turkey, where Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu held talks with a Syrian envoy in which he called on Damascus to end its violent crackdown on protesters and pass democratic reforms.
Syrian rights groups say 1,300 civilians and more than 300 soldiers and police have been killed since protests, inspired by Arab uprisings which toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, broke out in March against 41 years of rule by the Assad family.
Assad, an ally of Shi’ite Iran and supporter of militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, faces international condemnation, but the only concrete response to the violence has been U.S. and EU sanctions against the president and his close officials.
He has made vague promises of reform, while sending troops to crush protest centres one at a time. The latest focus of the military crackdown has been in the northwest of the country, around the town of Jisr al-Shughour where authorities say 120 security personnel were killed earlier this month.
Residents say Syrian forces have arrested hundreds of people in villages close to Jisr al-Shughour after an assault on the town on Sunday, and are now moving towards Maarat al-Numaan.
Two witnesses said security forces fired on a protest in Maarat al-Numaan, where about 100 demonstrators chanted for Assad’s downfall and against the army entering the town.
Many residents have fled, but one who attended the protest told Reuters that others were staying because Assad loyalists would “break into our homes and steal everything” if they left.
In the conservative Damascus suburb of Harasta, security forces fired live ammunition to disperse a night protest by 200 women demanding the release of their husbands and relatives, arrested in an intensifying security sweep to put down the three-month uprising, a witness said.
“They carried placards saying ‘Where is my husband?’ and ‘Where is my brother?’ and pictures of the prisoners. No one was hurt but it was barely 10 minutes into the demonstration when they opened fire,” said the witness.
Maarat al-Numaan’s residents said thousands of people headed to Aleppo and to Turkey, adding to a refugee flow that started in anticipation of the military assault on Jisr al-Shughour.
The official state news agency said on Wednesday thousands of people were returning to Jisr al-Shughour. But Turkish officials said 8,900 Syrians, many from that town, were still in Turkey, which has set up four refugee camps.
“We are hearing that they are calling for people to return, but we know that we will die if we go back,” said a refugee on the Turkish side of the border who gave his name as Ahmed.
“I am not planning to go back unless Bashar al-Assad falls,” said Abdulkadir, a 28-year-old refugee, who fled from a village near Jisr al-Shughour two days ago. Another 10,000 refugees were sheltering inside Syria close to the border.
Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu held three hours of talks with Syrian envoy Hassan Turkmani on Thursday morning. He described the talks as friendly, and Syria as Turkey’s “closest friend”, but made clear Turkey was opposed to the violence.
Turkey wanted a “strong, stable, prosperous Syria”, which would be achieved if Assad implemented reforms.
“In order to achieve this, the violence must stop immediately. Yesterday I clearly saw the fear in the eyes of the people and I shared this,” Davutoglu said in Ankara, a day after he visited a border camp in Yayladagi, about 20 km (13 miles) from Jisr al-Shughour, and talked to refugees.
A Reuters correspondent said Turkish authorities had tightened control over the border, making it harder for Syrians to cross unofficially.
A Turkish Red Crescent official said more tent camps were being prepared at the eastern end of the 800 km (500 mile) border, near the Turkish city of Mardin, far from where the current influx of refugees is concentrated.
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. The government has accused “armed groups” of burning crops.
The protests erupted on March 18 in the southern city of Deraa on the border with Jordan, which was later attacked by forces loyal to Assad. Witnesses said the Deraa border crossing with Jordan partially re-opened to cargo traffic on Thursday.
Additional reporting by Tulay Kardeniz in Guvecci, Turkey and Simon Cameron-Moore and Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Trevelyan