Syrians are continuing to pour over the border into Turkey after soldiers, backed by tanks, regained control of Jisr al-Shughour , the north-western town that has become the latest focal point for the uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The number of refugees in Turkey’s Hatay province had exceeded 6,800 by Monday afternoon, according to the state-run Anatolia news agency – up from about 4,000 before the final assault. Many more are congregating near the border on the Syrian side.
“There are 7,000 people across the border, more and more women and children are coming toward the barbed wires,” Abu Ali, who left Jisr al-Shughour, told the Associated Press news agency after crossing into Turkey. “Jisr is finished, it is razed.”
The US on Monday condemned in the “strongest possible terms” the latest attacks by the Syrian government in its crackdown of pro-democracy protests and called for Mr Assad to “step aside” if he refused to lead a democratic transition.
But while Syrian state television conceded that regime forces were involved in heavy fighting against “members of armed organisations” around Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday, questions remained over just whom they were fighting.
Activists and residents say the original confrontation in Jisr al-Shughour earlier this month, which state authorities say killed 120 members of the security forces, was a clash between units loyal to the regime and those sympathetic to protesters.
Opposition activists said on Sunday they continued to have evidence that many of those fighting against Assad loyalists were former soldiers who had defected.
State television has denied that any mutiny took place and blamed “terrorist” groups in the area. But it also claimed on Sunday that regime forces had found a mass grave in the area.
AP said one of its reporters, who was invited to accompany Syrian forces, had seen troops remove 10 uniformed bodies from a grave in front of the town’s military police building.
The building was burnt out, according to AP, and there were bloodstains in rooms, which bolstered reports of a mutiny last week in the town of 40,000.
It has been difficult to corroborate information coming out of Jisr al-Shughour, which is close to the Turkish border, as mobile phone services and the internet appear to have been cut and most international media are banned from Syria.
Most of the town’s residents are also thought to have fled in anticipation of the weekend’s attack.
Nonetheless, reports are emerging from people able to use Turkish sim cards on their mobile phones and other sources. The picture, say residents of the area and activists in touch with them, is one of devastation both in the town and surrounding villages, with houses and fields burning and hundreds fleeing to the Turkish border.
“All farms and animals have been bombed and are on fire,” said one man, speaking from a village near to Jisr al-Shughour, which he claimed was in flames after being attacked by tanks and missiles.
Activists say the intensity of the assault reflects the regime’s determination to prevent the area from becoming a base for defecting soldiers.
“Look at the geography,” said Wissam Tarif, head of the human rights group Insan. “Obviously, officers and soldiers were encouraged [to defect] ... because of the proximity to the [Turkish] border.”
The regime, said Radwan Ziadeh, a Washington-based human rights advocate, was concerned that defectors might establish “a base like [Libyan rebel-controlled] Benghazi”.
Jisr al-Shughour was a stronghold of Islamist resistance to the ruling regime in the 1970s and shelled by the current president’s father’s army in 1980.
Zuhair Salim, a UK-based spokesman for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, said some rebel soldiers were in hiding near the town in an area said to be inaccessible to tanks.
As the operation continued in Jisr al-Shughour, the beginnings of what the US has called a “humanitarian crisis” were evident on the nearby Turkish border, as the Red Crescent prepared a fourth camp to accommodate the thousands of refugees seeking to flee the violence.
Turkish villagers who are delivering bread to those waiting just across the border say shortages of food, blankets and milk for children are causing increasing hardship.
William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, said he was “deeply concerned” at the plight of Jisr al-Shughour and called on the Syrian government to give “unconditional access” to humanitarian agencies.