Diplomat: Over 4,300 Syrian refugees flee into Turkey

Syrian tanks, helicopters storm border town; estimates of refugees reach 10,000; diplomat says Syria implementing "scorched earth policy."

Syrian refugees in Turkish camp 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Syrian refugees in Turkish camp 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
AMMAN - Syrian tanks and helicopters stormed the town of Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday, residents said, and state television reported heavy clashes between army troops and gunmen opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
A senior Turkish diplomat said 4,300 Syrian refugees had crossed the border and were being cared for in hospitals and camps, but a Western diplomat said the number was higher and witnesses said some 10,000 were sheltering near the border.
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The assault on Jisr al-Shughour, astride a strategic road in northwest Syria, is the latest action by the armed forces to crush demands for political freedom and an end to oppression that pose an unprecedented challenge to Assad's 11-year rule.
Residents said earlier that most civilians had fled the town towards the Turkish border about 20 kilometers away and tanks and helicopters were shelling and machinegunning the town.
"Heavy confrontations are raging between army units and members of armed organizations taking up positions in the surroundings of Jisr al-Shughour and inside it," state television said.
Army units defused bombs and explosive charges planted by gunmen on bridges and roads into the town, it said. "Two members of the armed organizations were killed, large numbers of them arrested, and lethal weapons in their possession were seized."
Damascus has banned most foreign correspondents from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.
The state news agency said that after entering the town, army units "cleansed the national hospital of armed elements."
A senior Western diplomat in Damascus told Reuters: "The official version is improbable. Most people had left Jisr al-Shughour after seeing the regime's scorched earth policy, shelling and the heavy use of armor in the valley."
"The refugee exodus into Turkey is continuing and the numbers are higher than those officially counted so far."
Asked if there were clashes in the town Mustapha, a 39-year-old mason who fled early on Sunday, told Reuters "What clashes? The army is shelling the town from tanks. Everyone has been fleeing.
"Even if we we did have guns, what are they going to do in front of artillery? Syria is a tightly controlled dictatorship and all of a sudden the regime says Jisr al-Shughour is armed to the teeth. They are lying. They are punishing us for wanting freedom."
'Defecting soldiers are being killed'
Residents said the army unit was commanded by Assad's brother Maher and was copying the tactics used in other centers to crush protesters demanding an end to Assad's autocratic rule.
There had been large demonstrations in the town, which lies between Syria's second city Aleppo and the port of Latakia.
The government said last week that "armed gangs" had killed more than 120 security personnel there. Refugees and rights groups said the deaths were of mutinous soldiers, shot for refusing to fire on civilians.
"When the massacre happened in Jisr al-Shughour the army split, or they started fighting each other and blamed it on us," a woman refugee, who refused to give her name, told Turkish news channel NTV.
The United States accused the Syrian government of creating a "humanitarian crisis" and called on it to halt its offensive and allow immediate access by the International Committee for the Red Cross to help refugees, detainees and the wounded.
Turkey has set up two large tented camps for refugees and sent the wounded to hospitals, but restricted access to the refugees, saying this is to protect their privacy.
Bassam, a tiler who fled to Turkey as troops approached the town, showed mobile phone camera footage of a dead man, between 18 and 25 years old, with a bullet wound in his leg, and a large exit wound in his stomach. He lay on a bloodied cloth.
Another picture showed a young man who had been shot in the head. He said the two were killed just outside Jisr al-Shughour by troops under the command of Maher.
"There are only a few people left. I escaped on my motorcycle through dirt tracks in the hills," he told Reuters.
He said troops burned wheat crops in three villages near Jisr al-Shughour in a scorched-earth policy aimed at crushing the resistance of protesters in the area.
Other refugees said troops killed or burned cows and sheep and burned crops on farmland around the village of Sarmaniya, south of Jisr al-Shughour.
The state news agency said "armed terrorist groups" had burned land in Idlib province as part of a sabotage scheme.
Human rights groups say security forces have killed more than 1,100 Syrian civilians in increasingly bloody efforts to suppress demonstrations calling for Assad's removal, political freedom and an end to corruption and poverty.
The Syrian protests were inspired by uprisings against other entrenched autocrats in the Arab world.
Largely Sunni Muslim Turkey had backed Syria's ruling hierarchy -- who belong to the minority Alawite sect -- but has been increasingly critical of Assad's use of force to quell the protests as they spread close to the 800 km (500 mile) long border between the two countries.
Turkey's Radikal newspaper said Turkey would establish a buffer zone if migrant inflows from Syria exceed 10,000.
Thousands of people were gathering on the Syrian side of the border, according to an activist helping coordinate the movement of refugees. "The border area has turned practically into a buffer zone," said Abu Fadi. "There are 7,000 to 10,000 people here now."