Thousands of Syrians have fled the historic town of Maarat al-Numaan to escape troops and tanks pushing into the north in a widening military campaign to crush protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
In Turkey, which has been receiving thousands of Syrian refugees escaping military assaults, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan held talks on Wednesday with an envoy of Assad as Ankara pressed its southern neighbor to end military attacks n Syrian cities and towns that it has called "savagery."
Residents said an armored column had reached the village of Mantas, 15 km (10 miles) to the east of Maarat al-Numaan while another column was 20 km west at the village of al-Khwein. Troops also continued to be air lifted by helicopter to a staging camp 2 km from the town, residents said.
"The troops are firing randomly at the outskirts of al-Maarat al-Numaan to scare the population, which drove more people to flee tonight," one witness in the village of Maarshamsha on the edge of Maarat al-Numaan told Reuters by telephone.
He said the gunfire killed one man, Mohammad al-Abdallah, and that the shooting was so heavy that he had to be buried in the backyard of his house.
"Cars are continuing to stream out of Maarat al-Numaan in all directions, People are loading them with everything: blankets, mattresses on roofs," another witness said from the town of 100,000, which straddles the north-south highway linking Damascus with Syria's second city, the commercial hub of Aleppo.
On the edge of a limestone massif in an agricultural area in the northwest, Maarat al-Numaan is a center of Muslim pilgrimage and the site of a medieval massacre by Crusaders. In modern times it was the focus of a campaign to crush Islamist and leftist challengers to Bashar's father, the late Hafez al-Assad.
In the conservative Damascus suburb of Harasta, security forces fired live ammunition to disperse a night protest by 200 women demanding the release of their husbands and relatives, arrested in an intensifying security sweep to put down the three-month uprising, a witness said.
"They carried placards saying 'where is my husband' and 'where is my brother' and pictures of the prisoners. No one was hurt but it was barely 10 minutes into the demonstration when they opened fire," said the witness. DESTINATION TURKEY Maarat al-Numaan's residents said thousands of people headed to Aleppo and to Turkey, adding to a refugee flow following a military assault this week on Jisr al-Shughour, a town near the Turkish border which had also seen large protests.
The official state news agency said an army assault in Jisr al-Shughour had restored security there and thousands of people were returning. But Turkish officials said 8,500 Syrians, many from Jisr al-Shughour, had sought sanctuary in Turkey, which has set up four refugee camps across the border.
Refugees said there had been no mass movement back and another 10,000 were sheltering inside Syria close to the border.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who speaks Arabic, went to the border and talked to refugees, including wounded men lying on beds in camp hospitals.
Seeing Davutoğlu approach, the Syrians -- men, women and children -- gathered together chanting "Freedom" and "Erdoğan."
"I'll talk to Turkmani (Assad's envoy) and will share with him with all frankness what I saw. We are seeing a humanitarian situation here and developments are concerning," Davutoğlu told reporters after visiting a camp in Yayladağı, across from the town of Jisr al-Shughour, 20 km (13 miles) away.
A Reuters correspondent said Turkish authorities have tightened control over the border, making it harder for Syrians to cross unofficially.
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.
Fleeing refugees described shootings by troops and gunmen loyal to Assad, known as "shabbiha," and the burning of land and crops in a scorched earth policy to subdue people of the region. The government has accused "armed groups" of burning crops in an act of sabotage.
Syrian authorities said 120 security personnel were killed earlier this month in Jisr al-Shughour. It also said the army had found a second mass grave in the town containing the bodies of soldiers and police killed by "armed terrorist groups."
Witnesses said residents and deserting security forces attacked a police compound in Jisr al-Shughour about 10 days ago after police killed 48 people. They said 60 police, including 20 deserters, were killed.
In the tribal east, where Syria's 380,000 barrels per day of oil is produced, tanks and armored vehicles pulled back from the city of Deir al-Zor and from around Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, a week after tens of thousands of people took to the streets there demanding an end to Assad's autocratic rule.
"The authorities are negotiating with the leaders of the street demonstrations in Albu Kamal to try and avoid an assault," one activist in the region said.
In Damascus, thousands of Assad supporters lined one of the capital's main thoroughfares on Wednesday and lifted a 2,300-meter-long tricolour Syrian flag, while waving pictures of the president. State media said it was a demonstration of national unity and "rejection of foreign interference in Syrian internal affairs."
The protests erupted on March 18 in the southern city of Deraa on the border with Jordan, which was later attacked by forces loyal to Assad. Witnesses said the Deraa border crossing with Jordan partially re-opened to cargo traffic on Thursday.
Syrian rights groups say 1,300 civilians and more than 300 soldiers and police have been killed. Rights campaigners said many of the soldiers were shot by secret police or by loyalist forces for refusing to fire on civilians.
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