Tensions rise as Syrian troops mass near Turkish border

Syrian troops massed near the Turkish border yesterday, severely raising tensions with Ankara as President Bashar al-Assad uses increasing military force against a popular revolt.

Witnesses said hundreds of terrified refugees crossed into Turkey to escape an army assault. Syrian troops stormed the village of Managh, nine miles south of the border and just north of the commercial hub of Aleppo, according to residents.

"I was contacted by relatives from Managh. Armoured personnel carriers are firing their machine-guns randomly and people are fleeing the village," an Aleppo resident said.

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Mainly Sunni Turkey has become increasingly critical of Mr Assad, who belongs to Syria's Alawite minority, an off-shoot of Shia Islam, after previously backing him in his drive to seek peace with Israel and improve relations with the United States. Mr 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 yesterday morning.

Earlier in the day refugees from the north-western province of Idlib said armoured vehicles and troops were as close as 500 metres from the Turkish border in the Khirbat al-Joz area.

Abu Saeed, a 50-year-old man, said he fled yesterday 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."

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 pick-up truck mounted with a machine-gun.

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Turkey's 2nd Army Commander visited the Guvecci border post to take stock of the new troop deployments. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said the border remained open and refugees continued to arrive.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 to Mr Assad's rule, soldiers and secret police backed by armoured 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.