In an escalation of rhetoric towards Syrian President Bashar Assad yet unseen from Ankara, Turkish Prime Minsiter Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Syrian crackdown on protesters "inhumane," and described it as barbaric, Turkish newspaper Today's Zaman reported on Friday.

As some 2,500 refugees have fled to Turkey in recent days from Syria's northern region where troops and tanks are amassing ahead of an expected offensive, blasted the tactics employed by Syria's elite army units, led by President Assad's brother, Maher.

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"Sadly, they don't behave like humans," Erdogan said of the Syrian army's 4th Division, commanded by Maher Assad, according to the report. "Now the barbarity... [soldiers] pose [for a photo] in such an ugly way at the bedside of women who they killed," the Turkish prime minister added, "these images cannot be digested."

It was by far Erdogan's strongest call against the Bashar Assad, who he has previously described as a "good friend."

Addressing moves in the United Nations Security Council to impose stronger sanctions against Assad and his regime, Erdogan said, "We can't [support] Syria amidst all this as Turkey. We still have relatives [in Syria]."

Recalling a telephone conversation with the Sryian leader several days ago, Erdogan lamented, the Syrian leadership "take[s] this very lightly," according to the report.

Also on Friday, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the legitimacy of the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad was open to question after the killing of protesters by security forces.

"I would say the slaughter of innocent lives in Syria should be a problem and a concern for everybody," Gates told a seminar in Brussels.

"Whether Assad still has the legitimacy to govern his own country, I think is a question everyone needs to consider," he said.

The Syrian army began a military operation in a restive town near the Turkish border, state television said on Friday, as the country braced for more violent protests against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The Syrian government said earlier that "armed gangs" killed more than 120 security personnel in Jisr al-Shughour, a town of 50,000, earlier this week.

"Our correspondent in Jisr al-Shughour told us now that in response to people's calls, units from the Syrian Arabic Army started its duties in Jisr al-Shughour ... to arrest armed members," the television said.

Rami Abdulrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said residents in the northwestern town told him the army was still advancing towards the town. "They can hear gunfire and so far we do not have any casualty reports," he told Reuters.

Thousands of Syrians in the region fled into Turkey on Thursday fearing the military assault. At least 15,000 troops had deployed near Jisr al-Shughour, which residents said had largely emptied of people.

The latest reports of a government crackdown intensified international concerns over Syria's handling of pro-democracy protests, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.

Britain, France, Germany and Portugal have asked the UN Security Council to condemn Assad, although veto-wielding Russia has said it would oppose such a move.

World powers have shown no appetite for any Libya-style military intervention in Syria, which has so far shrugged off sanctions and verbal reprimands from abroad.

Tanks deploy outside town

Residents said on Thursday about 40 tanks and troop carriers had deployed about 7 km (4 miles) from Jisr al-Shughour.

Activists and residents say the violence began after a mutiny among security forces who refused to fire at protesters.

Turkey's Red Crescent said it was setting up a second camp near the border to shelter people still crossing from Syria to escape the military build-up.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said on Thursday 2,400 people had already entered Turkey.

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"Jisr al-Shughour is practically empty. People were not going to sit and be slaughtered like lambs," said one refugee who crossed on Wednesday and who gave his name as Mohammad.

Syria has barred most independent media from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of the violence.

Assad, 45, has promised reforms even while cracking down on unrest buffeting the country that has become the gravest threat to his 11-year authoritarian rule. Friday prayers have been a focus of protests throughout the revolt.

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