Dozens of Syrian tanks were rumbling toward a northern border town Wednesday, witnesses said, as residents abandoned their homes in fear of a brutal strike by government troops after dozens of security forces died there earlier this week.
A human rights worker in Syria confirmed that large convoys of tanks and elite troops were closing in on the area around Jisr al-Shughour and that an attack seemed imminent.
"The number of soldiers is in the thousands," Mustafa Osso told The Associated Press. He speculated that the government considers the operation to be a "decisive battle."
Osso said witnesses told him that thousands of troops were on the move toward the region in one of the biggest military deployments since Syria's 11-week-old uprising began. He said many of the forces were from the army's 4th Division, which is commanded by President Bashar Assad's younger brother, Maher. The younger Assad also commands the Republican Guard, whose main job is the protect the regime, and is believed to have played a key role in suppressing the protests.
A resident still in Jisr al-Shughour, which lies about 12 miles from the border with Turkey, said that almost every one else had left.
"It's no use staying here and defending my property," he told NPR, asking that his name not be used.
Turkish authorities confirmed that 120 Syrians had crossed the border, more than two dozen of them wounded. Turkish ambulances were waiting to whisk them to hospitals.
Turkey's government has said it is prepared to deal with a mass influx of Syrian refugees, though the border is relatively quiet for now. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that his country's doors were open to Syrians.
"It is out of question for us to close the border crossings. We are watching the situation with great concern," Erdogan said. He urged Assad to quickly implement reforms "that would convince civilians."
The pro-government Syrian newspaper Al-Watan reported that the army was launching a "very delicate" operation designed to avoid casualties in the town. It said some people were being held captive by what it called "armed groups" that control some areas in Jisr al-Shughour and a large area of Idlib province.
The newspaper said gunmen had set up boobytraps and ambushes in small villages to thwart security reinforcements, and were sheltering in forests and caves.
Syrian forces have lost control of large areas of the northern province, Al-Watan reported, in a rare acknowledgment of cracks in Assad's tight grip as protesters call for an end to his 40-year rule.
A weekend protest in Jisr al-Shughour was met with live fire by security forces, but residents said that some army soldiers balked at orders to shoot civilians and joined the anti-government protesters. The accounts could not be independently verified, but there have been credible reports of army defections in other Syrian towns.
An alleged army deserter identifying himself as Lt. Abdul-Razzaq Tlass appeared on the Al-Jazeera television network Tuesday, saying he was deserting because of the regime's "crimes" all over the country. He called on other officers to protect protesters against the regime, but government loyalists insisted he is a fake.
The incident came as Syria's ambassador to France said someone impersonating her had announced her resignation on French TV.
The apparently false resignation Wednesday underscored the complexity of the messages coming out of Syria, where the government keeps tight control on information and foreign reporters have been expelled.
Until now, Assad's government has maintained a unified front during the uprising, with only two members of parliament resigning since the rebellion began in mid-March, one of whom later withdrew his resignation.
Activists estimate that more than 1,300 Syrians, most of them civilian protesters, have died since the start of the nationwide uprising.
NPR's Deborah Amos reported from Beirut, Lebanon, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.