Syrian troops and heavy armor encircled a restive northern town on Thursday and hundreds of people fled through a single escape route across the lush Turkish border, sharply escalating the upheaval that threatens Syria's authoritarian regime.
The town of Jisr al-Shughour emptied as its residents crossed olive groves and traveled gravel roads, trying to get away from the tanks and elite forces surrounding them, a resident and activist said. Turkey's foreign minister said more than 2,400 Syrians had crossed the border, which was opened for refugees.
As more Syrians took up temporary residence in tents and with Turkish relatives, the uprising that targeted President Bashar Assad drew increasing scrutiny abroad.
In Geneva, Navi Pillay, the U.N.'s High Commissioner for Human Rights, accused Syria of trying to "bludgeon its population into submission" by attacking anti-government protesters with snipers, tanks and artillery.
A man who stayed behind in Jisr al-Shughour said the town was all but empty and people in a nearby village had warned that hundreds of soldiers were massing along with 27 tanks and 50 armored personnel carriers.
"It seems they are ready to launch the attack," he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.
Syrian activists say more than 1,300 people have died in the crackdown on the 11-week uprising, most of them unarmed civilians; a government spokeswoman countered that 500 security forces had died in the uprising, including 120 who died in the Jisr al-Shughour area this week.
"What has happened up till now in Jisr al-Shagour has been due to these armed groups that have murdered and killed more than 120 people from the police and from security," Reem Haddad, a spokeswoman for Syria's Information Ministry, told NPR's Melissa Block. "The army has not entered into this area so those people fleeing are not fleeing from the army because the army is not there. They are fleeing from these armed groups."
Groups of Syrians were crossing into Turkey by the hour from the province of Idlib, on motorbikes, pickup trucks and on foot.
"I don't want to die. I want Bashar Assad to go," said one Syrian teenager, who identified himself only by his first name, Ahmad, fearing reprisals from the Syrian government. Activists say more than 10,000 people have been detained since the uprising began in mid-March.
Syrian tanks were also deployed in the streets of Aleppo, the province that is home to Syria's second-largest city of the same name, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told CNN-Turk television late Wednesday.
"There are tanks in the streets," Erdogan said. "They seem to have lost control there."
Aleppo has historic ties with Turkey, and Erdogan said his government was taking measures to protect families there. Erdogan has said Turkey would accept all Syrians who flee, but he also has urged Syria's government to adopt reforms aimed at ending the unrest.
At a gathering of diplomats in Abu Dhabi, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she discussed developments in Syria
"President Assad may try to delay the changes underway in Syria but he cannot reverse them," Clinton said.
The uprising has led to weekly protests throughout Syria, and the violent crackdown appears only to galvanize them. Activists have made prolific use of Facebook and YouTube videos to bolster their claims that the government is attacking innocent Syrians.
A new video circulating among Syrians shows a 15-year-old boy, identified as Tamer Mohammed al-Sharei, who was said to have been tortured by security forces. The dark skinned body was placed in a wooden coffin, with a piece of paper marked "12" placed on his chest. "He is my son," a woman screams.
The boy had been missing since April 29 when he was last seen in the village of Saida in the southern province of Daraa on the same day and location where Hamza al-Khatib, 13, went missing. The younger boy became a symbol of Syria's uprising after his body was returned to his family late last month with marks of torture, bullet wounds and a severed penis.
Haddad, the Syrian spokeswoman, called the revelations "a terrible thing."
She told NPR's Block that "the people who did wrong will be brought to justice."
The struggle over Jisr al-Shughour and Idlib is a critical test for the Assad family's government, which said "armed groups" had killed 120 security forces in the area but has not commented on reports of a mutiny by some military units opposing the crackdown.
Ahmad and a few other teenagers from the town of Jisr al-Shughour spoke to an Associated Press reporter in Guvecci, where they came to collect food and blankets for their families still on the other side of the frontier. One villager said they came before dawn and would return at night to avoid detection by Turkish soldiers.
Muhammad, a 19-year-old, accused the Syrian police and intelligence forces loyal to Assad and said: "The military units are not doing anything wrong." He would not elaborate on reports that some troops had mutinied and joined forces with residents fighting back against the crackdown.
An elite Syrian military unit believed to be led by Assad's younger brother, Maher, had all but surrounded Jisr al-Shughour, leaving open just one route to the border 12 miles away, according to activist Mustafa Osso.
In a village about 6 miles from Jisr al-Shughour, residents came out to the streets to welcome Syrian soldiers heading toward the northwestern town. Some threw roses while others offered them cheese, yogurt and other food products, according to a Syrian reporter accompanying the truths.
Ahmed Ali, 47, told the reporter, "We are very pleased to see the army who came to rescue us from those criminals."
Al-Watan, a pro-government newspaper, reported Thursday that the army was mobilizing for a confrontation that would last for days in Idlib. It said troops faced an estimated 2,000 gunmen backed by young extremist villagers.
There was no way to independently verify the report. The Syrian government, which sharply restricts local media and expelled foreign journalists from Syria, has blamed recent violence on gunmen and religious militants.
Haddad, the government spokeswoman, said residents had asked troops to come and restore order.
Turkey and Syria share a 520-mile border, which includes several Syrian provinces, among them Aleppo.
Osso and a resident of the city of Aleppo, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals, said tanks have been deployed in at least two towns in the province that have seen protests.
The Turkish province of Hatay has a sizable Arabic-speaking population. It gained independence from Syria in 1938 and joined Turkey in a plebiscite a year later. Families in some villages were split when the borders were finalized in 1948.
"We will keep our doors open to all Syrians seeking refuge in our country. It would be out of the question for us to close our doors at a time when deaths have intensified and our brothers are seeking the possibility of refuge," Erdogan said Thursday.