SYRIAN ARMY ‘MOVES ON JISR AL-SHUGHOUR’
Amateur video – thought to be genuine – showed a convoy of troops moving to Jisr al-Shughour. The BBC's Jim Muir said many inhabitants have fled
The Syrian army has begun operations to “restore security” to the town of Jisr al-Shughour and the surrounding area, state TV says.
Earlier in the week, the government said 120 security personnel had been killed in the north-western town.
The announcement, and the deployment of troops in the area, has prompted a flow of refugees to neighbouring Turkey.
Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Syria was committing “atrocities”, in remarks quoted by Turkish media.
Turkey says more than 2,000 Syrians have crossed the border seeking refuge from the anticipated crackdown in Jisr al-Shughour.
Syria's government has blamed the deaths in the town on armed groups, but there are reports of a mutiny among security forces.
Syrian state TV said armed men had prepared defences and set fire to crops and trees around Jisr al-Shughour in order to slow the army's advance.
Activist websites have carried reports from people in the area saying there was heavy gunfire in a village where barricades of burning tyres had been set up to block the road to the town.
Syria has prevented foreign journalists, including those from the BBC, from entering the country, making it difficult to verify reports from there.
It is not clear how much resistance the Syrian troops can expect to meet in Jisr al-Shughour.
Some of the government newspapers have been suggesting there may be as many as 2,000 armed men in the area.
Syrian state TV has been running telephone intercepts of conversations between people inside the town suggesting first of all that the place is deserted but also that armed men have been withdrawn.
It could be that they will be rolling into a ghost town.
One way or another, the long-promised operation does now, at least according to official outlets, appear to be under way.
There has been no word from the other side at this stage, probably because communications and electricity have been cut off in the area.
In other developments:
Reports say two protesters have been shot dead in the southern province of Deraa, after security forces in vehicles opened fire on protesters
Eyewitnesses in the central city of Hama tell BBC Arabic that thousands of protesters are gathering in al-Aassi Square, the main square in the city centre – there is no security or police presence at all
Security forces disperse a gathering in front of al-Hassan Mosque in the centre of Damascus following Friday prayers
There are protests in the cities of Homs, Hasska, al-Qamishili and al-Amood. Gunfire has been heard in Bab Amr, a suburb of Homs
The BBC's Jim Muir, in Beirut, Lebanon, says the events in Jisr al-Shughour present a massive challenge to President Assad.
Syrian state TV has been preparing for the security operation in the town by widely broadcasting the movement of troops in the area, prompting many residents to flee.
The action against Jisr al-Shughour is in response to claims by Damascus that armed gangs killed 120 members of the security forces there after protests against President Assad's rule.
State TV has been broadcasting images of what it says are soldiers and police shot dead in the town.
The government says local residents requested the army's intervention to restore peace and quiet.
But dissenting accounts say the violence was sparked by deserting soldiers, and that loyal troops have massacred peaceful civilians.
Human rights groups say more than 1,100 people have been killed since protests against President Assad began in March, and it now appears several hundred security forces may also have died.
Turkey's Prime Minister Erdogan has previously been reluctant to criticise Syria, but in an interview quoted by Anatolia news agency, he said the Assad regime was committing “atrocities” against anti-government demonstrators.
“They are not acting in a humane manner. This is savagery,” he said in a TV interview on Thursday.
The unrest in Syria has prompted a split within the UN Security Council, where France and Britain have proposed a resolution to condemn the government's actions.
But other nations on the council, including Brazil, China and Russia, say such a resolution – which does not propose concrete action – could further inflame tensions in an already volatile region.
The UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, and the Pope have urged Damascus to show restraint, with Ms Pillay strongly condemning the Syrian government.