Tanks deploy in east Syria; residents flee northern town

Thousands flee town of Maarat al-Numaan; armored vehicles deploy near border of Iraq; Turkey "to facilitate return of Syrian citizens."

Syrian refugee camp 521 (photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Syrian refugee camp 521
(photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
AMMAN – Thousands of Syrians fled the historic town of Maarat al-Numaan on Wednesday to escape tank forces thrusting into the country's north in a widening military campaign to crush protests against President Bashar Assad.
In the tribal east, where Syria's 380,000 barrels per day of oil is produced, tanks and armored vehicles deployed in the city of Deir al-Zor and around Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, a week after tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding an end to Assad's autocratic rule.
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"Cars are continuing to stream out of Maarat al-Numaan in all directions," one witness told Reuters by phone. "People are loading them with everything, blankets, mattresses on roofs."
Syrian forces pushed toward the town of 100,000 that straddles the main north-south highway linking Damascus with Syria's second largest city Aleppo, after arresting hundreds of people in villages close to Jisr al-Shughour, near the border with Turkey, residents said.
The government said security had been restored in Jisr al-Shughour after fighting earlier this month in which it said 120 security personnel were killed, and urged residents who fled the military crackdown on the rebellious town to return.
A statement issued after a cabinet meeting on Tuesday also said Syria's Red Crescent aid organization would coordinate with Turkey "to facilitate the return of Syrian citizens."
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Witnesses said residents assisted by deserting security forces attacked a police compound after police killed 48 civilians. About 60 police, including 20 deserters were killed.
More than 8,500 Syrians have sought sanctuary in Turkey, which has set up four refugees camps in the west of the country, across the border from Jisr al-Shughour.
A Turkish Red Crescent official, who requested anonymity, said more tent camps were being prepared at the eastern end of the 800 km border, near the Turkish city of Mardin, far from where the current influx of refugees is concentrated.
The state-run Anatolian news agency said Assad's envoy, Hassan Turkmani, would visit Turkey on Wednesday for talks with Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Ergodan. The Turkish leader had developed a close rapport with Assad but has grown increasingly critical of his military crackdown.