The Syrian government says it has begun an assault on the western town of Jisr al-Shughour. Officials say they are liberating the town from "armed gangs" who killed 120 soldiers, while residents are fleeing what they fear will be a massacre of civilians. Meanwhile, demonstrations flared in several locales as Syrian forces reportedly killed at least two protesters.
Syrian state television says the government is responding to the call for help by citizens of Jisr al-Shughour and is pursuing "organized armed groups" and making arrests.
The town, normally home to some 50,000 people, is said to be largely deserted as residents fled ahead of the assault, a response to the disputed killing of security personnel.
Witnesses say remaining residents have set up barricades to slow the advance of dozens of tanks and armored vehicles converging on the town. Gunfire has been reported in villages on the approach.
Details are hard to confirm, as phone and Internet service to the area has been largely cut off. Many in the area have sought safety elsewhere in Syria and across the nearby border with Turkey. Abdulkerim Haji Yousef is among the some 2000 Syrians who have crossed the border.
The refugee says President Bashar al-Assad is killing his own people to stay in power. Assad has faced months of anti-government protests, at first a call for reform. But as the crackdown on demonstrators has escalated, his opponents want him out.
Amateur video has emerged of a protest said to be from last week in Jisr al-Shughour that prompted troops to move in during the days that followed. The government says its forces were ambushed and killed.
Residents refute the claim, saying the victims included soldiers who refused to open fire on civilians and were then killed by loyalist troops. The Syrian governments crackdown against protesters across the country has been condemned by human rights groups.
The United Nations Security Council is considering its own censure of Syrian actions, but the Western-backed move is being resisted by Russia. Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has tried to improve relations with Syria in recent years, says he has been in contact with President Assad and is urging him to enact reforms.
Erdogan called the crackdown "unacceptable" and referred to some of the actions of Syrian security forces as an "atrocity."
In the interim, Turkish relief workers have been setting up refugee camps to shelter those fleeing the violence. And the International Committee for the Red Cross Friday called for access to those areas of Syria where the violence has occurred.
Rights groups say 1,300 people have been killed in the unrest, mainly civilians. The government rejects those numbers and says hundreds of its own security have been killed.