GUVECCI, Turkey, (AP) – Terrified Syrians ran for their lives Wednesday as elite army units swept through a restive northern province, expanding a deadly operation to crush signs of dissent against President Bashar Assad.
Farther south, tens of thousands took to the streets in the central city of Hama to show solidarity with victims of the military crackdown. Hama was the site of a 1982 massacre by the government of Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, whose forces shelled the city to crush a Sunni Muslim uprising.
The crisis in Syria has drawn international condemnation and isolation as serious as any in the Assad regime’s 40 years in power. Human rights activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have died and some 10,000 have been detained as the government has struggled to put down the 3-month-old national upheaval.
In recent days, Syrian tanks and the government’s most loyal troops have been trying to extinguish any chance the anti-Assad resistance could gain a base for a wider armed rebellion. They have sealed off strategic areas in the north and east — including the town of Jisr al-Shughour, which was spinning out of government control before the military moved in on Sunday.
Other towns and villages in the region were on alert. Maj. Gen. Riad Haddad, head of the military’s political department, said tanks surrounding Maaret al-Numan, a town of 100,000, had not entered “yet” — suggesting they were readying an operation. Maaret al-Numan sits on the highway linking Damascus with Syria’s second-largest city, Aleppo.
Hundreds of people were fleeing Maaret al-Numan on Wednesday, as security forces intermittently shelled the area and raided nearby villages, making arrests, said Syrian human rights activist Mustafa Osso. Troops might storm Maaret al-Numan “any minute,” he said.
Gen. Haddad also confirmed witness accounts that army units were surrounding the eastern town of al-Boukamal, near the Iraqi frontier, “to protect the borders.” The area was a smuggling route for insurgents and weapons into Iraq in the 2000s, and Syrian officials worry about a reverse flow of arms into Syria.
Some 8,000 Syrians, mainly from the northwestern province of Idlib, have already sought refuge in camps in this area of neighboring Turkey, a refugee exodus that’s deeply embarrassing to Damascus, one of the most tightly controlled societies in the Middle East.
As the crackdown grew bloodier, Syrian pro-democracy activists escalated their calls for political reforms to demands for the end of the Assad regime, dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
For its part, the government blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists are behind it — not true reform-seekers. On Wednesday, Haddad claimed “gunmen” were “intimidating people into fleeing” Syria.
Syrian Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud called on residents of Jisr al-Shughour to return, saying the area is now safe. An Associated Press reporter on a government-organized trip to Jisr al-Shughour was shown a mass grave there Wednesday — an attempt to bolster government claims that gunmen last week killed 120 security personnel there.
It is difficult to independently confirm the events in Syria, since foreign journalists have been expelled and local reporters face tight controls. Most witnesses inside the country speak on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution from the government.
But refugees who spoke to the AP in Turkey on Wednesday placed blame squarely on the government and its army units and pro-regime militias known as “shabiha.”
“You ruined us, Bashar!” refugees shouted in Arabic on Wednesday at a camp in Turkey. “Just leave!”
As Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, visited one camp Wednesday, children held up cardboard signs reading in Arabic: “We are dying and the world is watching,” and “We will not retreat and surrender until the regime is toppled.”
Although the Turks said Hollywood star and U.N. refugee goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie might visit the refugees later this week, the Ankara government has largely prevented access to the camps.
Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has accused Assad’s regime of “savagery,” but also said he would reach out to the Syrian leader to help solve the crisis. A Syrian special envoy, Hassan Turkmani, flew to Ankara on Wednesday to meet with Erdogan.
Meanwhile, thousands of Assad supporters staged a massive pro-regime demonstration in Damascus, carrying pictures of the president and chanting, “The people want Bashar Assad!” Syrian TV said the demonstration expressed “Syrian national unity and Syria’s rejection of foreign interference in its internal affairs.”
Gen. Haddad’s news conference was a rare briefing by the military, signaling Damascus was going out of its way to refurbish its image and deny signs of cracks within the military, in the face of dissidents’ reports that mutineering troops had joined the resisters in the north. Haddad said armed forces were “coherent and carry out all tasks entrusted to them.”
In another move suggesting normalcy, Jordan reported Syria had reopened a border crossing near the southern town of Deraa, after a two-month closure prompted by military operations that suppressed anti-government protests there.
Meanwhile, the television station of Lebanon’s Syria-allied Hezbollah movement reported Assad would announce new reform measures within days.
Assad’s government has found support from Russia, whose foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said no state would be “tolerant of attempts to organize and direct a revolt,” Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported Wednesday. Although Lavrov said Russia insists on reforms in Syria, Moscow opposes any strong U.N. Security Council condemnation of the Syrian crackdown, as being promoted in New York by Britain and France.
In Geneva, meanwhile, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, called for an investigation of alleged Syrian abuses of anti-government protesters, citing information about “acts of torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment.”