HACIPASA, Turkey (Reuters) - Syrian refugees fleeing across a narrow river into Turkey spoke of chaos and confusion as Syrian government forces battled rebels for control of the border area around their home town of Azmarin on Thursday.
Shells fired onto the town from surrounding hills sent thick plumes of smoke and dust rising into the air and sporadic cracks of gunfire could be heard from the Turkish side of the frontier.
A voice amplified through loudspeakers in Azmarin, audible from the village of Hacipasa on the Turkish side, called on rebel fighters to surrender.
“Give up your weapons. Come and surrender. We are coming with tanks and with planes,” the voice could be heard announcing, in between loud bursts of mortar fire.
Intense fighting between rebels and Syrian government forces began this week in Azmarin and neighboring towns in an area strongly opposed to President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
The clashes have sparked an exodus from the area, with people fleeing across the Orontes river that forms a natural frontier along this section of the Turkish-Syrian border.
Fighting along the 900-km (560-mile) border has repeatedly spilled over into Turkish territory over the past week, with the Turkish army responding in kind to gunfire and mortar shells flying over from Syria.
Turkish Chief of Staff General Necdet Ozel said on Wednesday that his troops would respond “with greater force” if the shelling continued, and parliament last week authorized the deployment of troops outside Turkish territory, heightening fears that Syria’s civil war will drag in regional powers.
One man who escaped from Azmarin on Wednesday described scenes of panic and destruction.
“They are firing with all kinds of weapons. My mother was unable to escape. It’s hard to tell how many have been killed. Assad’s soldiers have snipers in the minaret of the mosque. They fire on whoever moves,” said 36-year-old Abdo.
“Nobody knows who is who in the town. They are firing mortars from all around the town on top of us.”
Scores of Syrians, mostly women and children, have been pouring down to the Orontes river over the past two days to be loaded onto small rickety boats and pulled across by ropes slung across the narrow channel.
Rebels and villagers on both sides of the crossing have set up first aid points with bandages and stretchers to tend to the wounded.
Fighters, sub-machineguns slung over their shoulders, carried wailing children down to the waiting boats followed by their sobbing mothers.
“Look!” shouted one Turkish man from Hacipasa who had come down to help the people across. “Where is China? Where is Russia now? Are these people terrorists?” he said as he helped pull one of the boats across.
The United States, European allies, Turkey and Gulf Arab states have sided with the Syrian opposition while Iran, Russia and China have backed Assad, whose family and minority Alawite sect have dominated Syria for 42 years.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday a Syrian passenger plane forced to land in Ankara was carrying Russian-made munitions destined for Syria’s defense ministry, ratcheting up tensions with Damascus.
Like many villages and towns along this border, Hacipasa has strong links to its southern neighbor. The villagers’ first language is Arabic and many families have relations on both sides of the boundary.
A man shouted through a loudspeaker in Hacipasa, calling on villagers to help those trying to escape.
“Those of you who love God, who love Mohammad, gather your cars and help our Syrian brothers and sisters!” he said.
Those who have escaped now stay with families in Hacipasa but the village is fast running out of space to house them.
Villagers have erected a crude tarpaulin held up by pieces of wood to try and shelter the women and children from the torrential rains as Turkish troops register them before sending them to refugee camps in Adiyaman, hundreds of kilometres away.
The women huddle under the plastic in a desperate attempt to stay dry, clutching onto what little possessions they could bring: small bag of valuables or gas cylinders to cook food.
In the village, men gathered outside the mosque to try and organize a plan to send food to those unable to escape.
“We send them flour, lentils and bread, mostly dry foods. They are our relatives, our brothers,” said one man from Hacipasa, asking not to be named.
Editing by Nick Tattersall and Mark Heinrich