Syrian troops moved against a restive northern border town Friday in what the government said was a military operation to restore order though most residents have reportedly fled.
Tanks were on the outer edges of the town of Jisr al-Shughour on Friday, preparing to enter, an AP reporter accompanying Syrian troops on a government-organized trip said. He said the army announced the start of operations at around 5 a.m. Friday. Witnesses contacted by telephone said most residents had abandoned the town of up to 45,000.
Citing contacts inside Syria, Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said more than 10,000 soldiers were involved in the military action in Jisr al-Shughour.
More than 3,000 Syrians have crossed the border into neighboring Turkey to flee the violence, most in the past several days. Activists said at least six people were killed in cities across Syria when crowds gathered for renewed protests after Friday prayers.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has said his government will not shut its border, described the Syrian crackdown as "savagery."
Residents of Jisr al-Shughour who have fled into Turkey depicted a week of revolt and mayhem in the town, where scores of security forces were killed last week amid the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
Syrian state TV said Friday that the operation aims to restore security in Jisr al-Shughour after 120 officers and security personnel were killed by what authorities said were "armed groups." But some residents said that Syrian police had turned their guns on one another and that soldiers shed their uniforms rather than obey orders to fire on protesters.
A 21-year-old Syrian policeman, who identified himself as Ahmed Gavi, told a Turkish newspaper that he saw five officers killed on the spot when they refused orders to shoot unarmed protesters. He said he escaped across the border with 60 other officers.
Gavi said so many officers died because a fire fight broke out among the more than 200 policemen ordered to carry out an operation against the protesters. His account could not be independently verified because Syrian sharply restricts local media and has expelled foreign reporters, but other refugees have given similar descriptions.
The invitation to members of the media to accompany troops to Jisr al-Shughour appeared to reflect a Syrian government effort to counter criticism and prove the existence of armed gangs.
"Now we feel safe," Walida Sheikho, a 50-year-old woman in the village of Foro, near Jisr al-Shughour, told The Associated Press.
She and other residents offered food, water and juice to the Syrian troops and said they had appealed for help from the army.
Syrian television said the army mobilized after appeals from residents who said they were terrorized by the groups. The government has often blamed violence on gunmen and Islamic extremists, though there have been widespread accounts of security forces firing on unarmed protesters.
State TV also said that armed groups set fire to crops and fields of wheat in areas surrounding Jisr al-Shughour as the army approached.
But a man in the town blamed government security forces for the crop-burning. He said the few remaining residents were collecting car and truck tires to set them on fire to try to block the army's advance. He told the AP that a military helicopter had flown over the area Thursday night, firing flares on a possible reconnaissance mission.
Meanwhile, activists said demonstrators gathered after Friday prayers across Syria, including in the northern city of Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama, Bukamal in the east, and suburbs of Damascus.
They said security forces opened fire on protesters near the Sheikh Jaber mosque in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, killing three people and wounding several others. One activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said there were snipers on rooftops and security checkpoints outside local mosques.
In the restive southern province of Daraa, residents and human rights groups said three people had been shot dead Friday after protesters took to rooftops to cry "Allahu Akhbar," or God is great.
The military operations are part of a crackdown on the three-month-old uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have died in the unrest, most of them unarmed civilians. A government spokeswoman has countered that a total of 500 security forces have been killed since the rebellion began.
Interviewed on Turkey's ATV television late Thursday, Erdogan said some images coming out of Syria were "unpalatable" and suggested that his government could support a U.N. Security Council decision against Syria.
The Turkish primier harshly criticized Assad's younger brother, Maher, who is believed to be in command some troops in the Jisr al-Shughour operation. Maher Assad is also in charge of the elite Republican Guard, whose job is to protect the government.
The comments reflected Ankara's frustration with Syria after weeks of attempts by Turkish officials to coax Syrian authorities into implementing democratic reforms.
Officials said the Turkish Red Crescent was setting up two new camps near the border, in addition to the one where refugees have already been placed.
NPR's Deborah Amos and Peter Kenyon reported from Beirut, Lebanon, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.