REYHANLI, Turkey (Reuters) - Syrian firefighter Ahmad Zakzak clutched his stomach as he lay in a Turkish hospital, his back bleeding from a shrapnel wound suffered in a tank bombardment of a small town in Syria’s nearby Idlib province.
Zakzak is one of thousands of refugees who have fled towns and villages they say are being pummeled with tank and artillery fire in a renewed assault by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces ahead of an April 10 U.N. deadline for a government ceasefire.
“I’m not worried about the wounds I can see. I’m afraid that I have internal bleeding,” the 45-year-old gasped, crying out from the pain of his wounds. “I’m in the rescue business and I know. God damn you, Bashar al-Assad, you spare no one!”
With the surgery theatre full, a doctor jumped between seven other wounded Syrians in the emergency room. Ambulance sirens wailed. More wounded arrived, ferried across rugged terrain over the border by smugglers and Free Syrian Army rebels.
Turkish officials say more than 2,800 Syrians fled into Turkey from the region of Idlib, focus of military action, during Thursday - a sharp increase from the flow, well below a thousand, on most previous days.
Assad says his forces have been battling foreign backed Islamist militants in the year-old uprising and denies civilians are being targeted by anyone except those militants.
Zakzak set out early Thursday from his home city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial centre, to the village of Killi in Idlib to rescue his 20-year-old daughter when he heard the army was bombarding the area. Telephone lines have been cut for weeks.
“I got there and helicopters started hitting the streets with machineguns. I escaped from my car and a young guy on a motorcycle helped me. I jumped on with him only to see a tank in front of us. It fired a shell in our direction and he was killed instantly,” Zakzak said.
“I could not recognize Killi. The roads were full of rubble. Shells were hitting everywhere,” he said.
Mohammed Khatib, a refugee who said he came from Kastanaz, a Syrian town of 20,000 people, told a similar tale.
“The army is destroying buildings and bombing them till they turn to charcoal,” he said.
Syrian activists in the refugee camps said most newcomers had crossed from Killi and other areas in east and north Idlib.
The influx has turned the small Turkish town of Reyhanli, an Arab settlement once famous for making the finest carpets in Ottoman Syria, into a refugee hub.
The journey is dangerous.
The Orontos River, which marks the border, is famous for its strong currents. Syrian army tents could be seen pitched amid lush farmland on the other side of the border.
Syrian opposition activists said four refugees were shot dead trying to cross the river this week, and a 16-year-old boy drowned. The activists said the Syrian army fired at and sank barrels used as makeshift boats pulled by ropes.
“Behind the tents there are army machinegun positions. If Assad lets the people escape you would see hundreds of thousands of Syrians here,” said Mohammad Hijazi, who was elected as a representative of refugees in Boynuyogun camp, one of several camps Turkish authorities set up right on the border.
“Every time the regime is given a deadline it is a catastrophe. Assad interprets it as a license for unlimited killing and another deadline is set,” Hijazi said, referring to international envoy Kofi Annan’s peace plan.
“Assad wants to tell the Syrians never say no again.”
Refugees and activists reported hundreds of casualties from the shelling in the last few days, including 120 people killed in the last 48 hours in Taftanaz in Idlib, which was stormed by 50 tanks and armored vehicles.
“I was caught by tank fire in the middle of Taftanaz after making several trips in to take relatives out. The doctor has drugged me to the point that I can’t feel anything,” said Ayman Shallah, who owns an interior decorating business and was hit from the waist down by seven bullets and shrapnel pieces.
Accounts of the violence cannot be verified because Syrian authorities have placed tight restrictions on access by independent media.
Under a U.N. plan agreed with Damascus, Syrian forces should cease operations and withdraw from settlements by April 10. Rebels should then cease fire within 48 hours.
U.N. special envoy Annan said on Thursday he had been told by Damascus that troop withdrawals were underway from Idlib, as well as Zabadani and Deraa.
But one resident of Zabadani, near the Lebanon border, said no significant withdrawal was under way.
“They are complete liars, there is no army withdrawal, they are still in the middle of the city. They fired on the city this morning, like they do every day,” a man calling himself Abu Mustafa said by phone.
YouTube footage showed smoke rising from artillery barrages on Hazzano, another village in Idlib from where many refugees have fled.
Some of the wounded were young conscripts who have fled the military and joined the Free Syrian Army, a loosely grouped organization of outgunned deserters who have been trying to slow down the advance of Assad’s forces, dominated by the minority Alawite sect of the ruling elite.
“If the defectors don’t surrender, they bomb the whole village to the ground,” said Abdelrahim al-Razi, who was wounded in the chest in his hometown of Sermin. It took him six days to reach Turkey.
The United Nations says Assad’s forces have killed more than 9,000 people in the conflict, which began with peaceful protests although armed rebels later began fighting back. Syria told the world body this week that 6,044 people had died, including 2,566 soldiers and police.