BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops backed by dozens of tanks massed outside a virtually deserted town near the Turkish border Friday preparing to move in after protesters and mutinous forces rose up against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
Thousands of residents who have fled into Turkey have depicted a week of revolt and mayhem in Jisr al-Shughour, saying Syrian police turned their guns on each other and soldiers shed their uniforms rather than obey orders to fire on protesters. Syrian state television said Friday the operation aims to restore security in the town, where authorities say 120 officers and security personnel were killed by "armed groups" last week.
Tanks were on the outer edges of Jisr al-Shughour, preparing to enter, an AP reporter accompanying Syrian troops on a government-organized trip said. He said the army announced the start of operations at around 5 a.m. Friday. Witnesses contacted by telephone said most residents had abandoned the town.
Syria sharply restricts local media and has expelled foreign reporters, making it virtually impossible to independently verify reports about the uprising. The invitation to an AP reporter to accompany troops on the operation in Jisr al-Shughour appeared to reflect a Syrian government effort to counter negative publicity about its crackdown.
Syrian television said the operation to "liberate" the town from "armed gangs" came in response to the appeals of residents who were terrorized by the groups. The government has often blamed violence on gunmen and Islamic extremists, though there are widespread accounts of security forces firing on unarmed protesters.
Witnesses, however, have said Syrian police turned their guns on each other, and soldiers shed their uniforms rather than obey orders to fire on protesters.
Reports of an imminent operation by the military prompted an exodus of refugees to Turkey. About 2,700 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey since the nationwide uprising against President Bashar Assad began three months ago, with most fleeing in the last two days.
State television said armed groups set crops and fields in areas surrounding Jisr al-Shughour on fire as the army approached.
But a man in the town said the few remaining residents were collecting car and truck tires to set them on fire in an attempt to try to block the advance of the army. He said by telephone to an AP reporter in Beirut that a military helicopter had flown over the area Thursday night, firing flares on a possible reconnaissance mission.
The resident said tanks entered the village of Sirmaniyeh, five miles (12 kilometers) from Jisr al-Shughour and were headed there.
The military operations are part of a crackdown on the three-month-old uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have died in the nationwide crackdown, most of them unarmed civilians. A government spokeswoman has countered that a total of 500 security forces had died in the revolt.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had close ties to Assad, described the crackdown in Syria as "savagery" and accused the Syrian president of taking the situation in Syria "too lightly."
Interviewed on Turkey's ATV television late Thursday, he said some images coming out of Syria were "unpalatable" and suggested Turkey could support a U.N. Security Council decision against Syria.
"They are not acting in a humane manner. This is savagery," he said.
The comments reflected Turkish frustration with Syria after weeks of attempts by Turkish officials to coax Syrian authorities into implementing democratic reforms.
Officials said the Turkish Red Crescent was setting up two new camps near the border, in addition to the one where refugees have already been placed.
Associated Press reporter Albert Aji contributed from the Jisr al-Shughour area.