AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian troops massed near the Turkish border, witnesses said on Thursday, raising tensions with Ankara as President Bashar al-Assad increases the use of military force against a popular revolt.
Turkey said the two countries’ foreign ministers had consulted by telephone, and Syria’s ambassador to Ankara was later summoned to the foreign ministry, demonstrating further how disturbed Turkey is over events in its southeast neighbor.
Witnesses said hundreds of terrified refugees crossed into Turkey to escape an army assault. Syrian troops stormed the village of Managh, 15 km (9 miles) south of the border and just north of the commercial hub of Aleppo, according to residents.
“I was contacted by relatives from Managh. Armored personnel carriers are firing their machineguns randomly and people are fleeing the village in all directions,” an Aleppo resident said.
Mainly Sunni Turkey has become increasingly critical of Assad, who belongs to Syria’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Islam, after previously backing him in his drive to seek peace with Israel and improve relations with the United States. Assad also opened the Syrian market to Turkish goods.
Rights groups say more than 1,300 civilians have been killed across Syria since mid-March, but the anti-Assad protests have still grown, especially on Fridays after Muslim prayers.
Syrian authorities blame Islamist militants and armed gangs for killing more than 200 police and security personnel.
A Turkish Red Crescent official told reporters about 600 Syrians had crossed the border on Thursday morning.
Earlier in the day refugees from the northwestern province of Idlib said armored vehicles and troops were as close as 500 meters from the Turkish border in the Khirbat al-Joz area.
Abu Saeed, a 50-year-old man, told Reuters he fled on Thursday to Turkey with his two wives and three children after he saw some 50 military vehicles enter Khirbat al-Joz.
“(The vehicles) entered the village with a bulldozer and started demolishing our homes. A 90-year-old man was killed by them. They were army soldiers and police. Then we fled here.”
It is hard to verify accounts of the violence since Syria has expelled many journalists, including Reuters correspondents.
Reuters reporters in Turkey saw half a dozen Syrian soldiers entering a three-storey building on a hill overlooking the border, opposite the Turkish village of Guvecci. A Turkish flag had been hoisted on the previously unoccupied building.
The Syrian troops replaced the flag with a Syrian one. They left shortly before noon. Within an hour four busloads of troops arrived, along with a pickup truck mounted with a machinegun.
Turkey’s 2nd Army Commander visited the Guvecci border post to take stock of the new troop deployments.
“They (Syrian troops) have never been this close before,” said Reuters Television journalist Omer Berberoglu. “But they didn’t come down to where the refugees were.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the border remained open and refugees continued to arrive.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu discussed the situation in Syria and the refugee issue with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem, a Foreign Ministry official said.
Turkey’s Foreign Ministry later summoned Syria’s ambassador for consultations, state-run Anatolian news agency reported.
Protests have grown in northern areas bordering Turkey following military assaults on towns and villages in the Jisr al-Shughour region of Idlib province to the west of Aleppo that had sent more than 10,000 people fleeing to Turkey.
On the 100th day of an uprising that has posed the gravest challenge yet to Assad’s rule, soldiers and secret police backed by armored vehicles set up road blocks on Wednesday along the main road from Aleppo to Turkey, a major route for container traffic from Europe to the Middle East. They arrested dozens of people in the Heitan area north of Aleppo, residents said.
One resident, a physician, told Reuters by telephone: “The regime is trying to pre-empt unrest in Aleppo by cutting off logistics with Turkey.”
Central neighborhoods of Aleppo, a largely Sunni city, have been mostly free of protests, in part due to a heavy security presence and a continuing alliance between Sunni business families and Syria’s ruling Alawite hierarchy.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that since June between 500 and 1,500 people had fled daily across Syria’s 840-km (520-mile) border with Turkey.
Syria, a mostly Sunni country of 20 million with Kurdish, Alawite and Christian minorities is vulnerable to sectarian tensions, especially as Assad increasingly relies on loyalist Alawite troops and irregular forces known as ‘shabbiha’.
Many Sunnis resent the privileges gained by Alawites who have dominated the security apparatus during the 41 years of Assad family rule. Some dislike Assad’s policy of aligning Syria further with Shi‘ite Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah guerrillas.
Turkey has warned Assad against any repeat of his father’s bloody repression of an armed Islamist revolt in the city of Hama in 1982, when many thousands were killed.
A senior Turkish official said on Sunday that Assad had less than a week to start implementing long-promised political reforms before foreign intervention began, without elaborating.
Moualem on Wednesday dismissed any chance of international intervention and asked Turkey to reconsider its response to a speech by Assad this week. Turkish President Abdullah Gul had said Assad’s reform promises were not enough.
In his third speech since the start of the uprising, Assad promised reforms but these were seen by opponents and world leaders as too little, too late and too vague.
Assad issued an amnesty the next day, which human rights lawyers said covered mainly drug dealers, tax evaders and thieves, rather than political detainees.
Additional reporting by Omer Berberoglu and Umit Bektas in Guvecci, Turkey; Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; editing by Yara Bayoumy and Alistair Lyon