REYHANLI, Turkey (Reuters) - More than 2,800 Syrians fled across the border to Turkey from the region of Idlib on Thursday, a Turkish official said, more than double the highest previous one-day total.
The refugees all crossed close to the Turkish village of Bukulmez and more were waiting on the other side of the border, the official said. Forty-four minibuses ferried the arrivals from the border to a refugee camp at Reyhanli.
“The army is destroying buildings and bombing them till they turn to charcoal,” said Mohammed Khatib, a refugee who said he came from Kastanaz, a Syrian town of 20,000 people.
“The army wants people to move out of their houses. If the residents refuse, they destroy them with the people inside.”
He said he had crossed into Turkey after attacks on Kastanaz intensified, first from the air, then from ground troops.
“For the past three days there have been bodies lying in the streets. Around 200 have been killed. The town is now abandoned. It took us two days to get to Turkey with our women and children.”
He said he had seen soldiers execute one man in front of his family.
Villagers on the Turkish side said they could hear the sounds of heavy fighting throughout the day.
The confirmed number of new refugees was the highest since March 15, when around 1,000 Syrians entered Turkey in one day.
A smaller, unknown number were also thought to have crossed on Thursday near Kilis, further north in the Turkish province of Gaziantep.
Turkish leaders have said a flood of refugees or massacres of civilians by Syrian troops near its border could force them to act to prevent a humanitarian disaster.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said last month that setting up a “safe” or “buffer” zone along the border was among the options his government was considering.
But that would mean sending in troops to secure the area, which could lead to confrontation between Syrian forces and the Turkish army, the second biggest in NATO.
Erdogan said again on Thursday that Assad had not been honest in the past about pledges to halt the fighting.
“We will see by what he does only after April 10 if he is being true and honest now,” he said, referring to a deadline set by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan for Syrian troops to withdraw from conflict cities and comply with his peace plan.
Khatib and other refugees said seven towns and villages had been attacked in the past two days: Hazzano, Kastanaz, Billish, Magara, Chillah, Zardenah and Killi.
Abu Isa, 28, from a village near Killi, said he had left home at around 11 a.m. and reached Turkey around sunset.
He said his village had come under fire from helicopters, and that he had seen one helicopter fire two rockets.
“There was indiscriminate firing,” he said.
“The village is 80 percent empty. Some came to Turkey, some went to other villages.”
He said the village of Hazzano, 2 km away, was three-quarters destroyed and its school and mosque were in ruins.
Abu Musa, a 36-year-old from the same village, said he had crossed with a group of 600-700 people.
He said they had been helped to cross the border, 20 km away, by the Free Syrian Army, the loosely organized armed opposition formed in response to Assad’s crackdown on a peaceful uprising that began a year ago. One FSA soldier was killed, Musa said.
Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Kevin Liffey