AMMAN // Syrian tanks and helicopters stormed the town of Jisr al Shughour yesterday as state television reported fierce clashes between army troops and gunmen opposed to the president, Bashar al Assad.
More than 5,000 refugees have crossed the border into Turkey and a UNHCR spokesman said the Red Crescent was preparing a fourth camp with room for 2,500 more. Witnesses said about 10,000 were sheltering near the border.
The assault on Jisr al Shughour, astride a strategic road in north-west 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 Mr al Assad's 11-year rule.
Residents said earlier that most of the town's 50,000 people had fled towards the Turkish border about 20 kilometres away and tanks and helicopters were shelling and machine-gunning the town.
Syria's official Sana news agency said yesterday a mass grave had been found in Jisr al Shughur by government forces fighting "armed gangs" in the flashpoint town.
"Armed groups had mutilated the corpses which were removed from the mass grave," Sana reported. Some international media claimed the grave held the bodies of 10 security troops who had been beheaded.
According to the Sana report, the army entered the town "after defusing dynamite placed on the bridges and roads by the armed groups" and "two armed men were killed and many more arrested, with machine guns also seized".
"Heavy confrontations are raging between army units and members of armed organisations taking up positions in the surroundings of Jisr al Shughour and inside it," state TV said.
The government said last week the "armed gangs" had killed more than 120 security personnel in the town after large demonstrations there. Refugees and rights groups said the dead were 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 told the Turkish news channel NTV.
A senior western diplomat in Damascus said: "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 armour 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 yesterday, said "What clashes? The army is shelling the town from tanks. Everyone has been fleeing.
"Even if 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."
Residents said the army unit was commanded by Mr al Assad's brother, Maher, and was copying the tactics used in other centres to crush protesters demanding an end to Mr al Assad's rule.
The United States accused the Syrian government of creating a "humanitarian crisis" and called on the al Assad regime to halt its offensive and allow immediate access by the International Committee of 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 has restricted access to the refugees 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 photograph 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 tracks in the hills," he said.
He said troops burnt 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 burnt cows and sheep and torched crops on farmland around the village of Sarmaniya, south of Jisr al Shughour.
The state news agency said "armed terrorist groups" had burnt 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 Mr al Assad's removal, political freedom and an end to corruption and poverty.
* Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse