Syria crisis: Refugee surge to Turkey 'as troops mass'

Refugees walk behind the fence of a refugee camp in the Turkish town of Yayladagi in Hatay province, close to the Syrian border, on Thursday Turkish border guards have been ordered to allow Syrians in

Growing numbers of Syrians are escaping over the border into Turkey ahead of a feared government assault on the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour.

More than 2,000 people have already crossed the border, Ankara says.

The UN's human rights chief has condemned Syria's treatment of its people as "unacceptable".

Meanwhile, Brazil has become the latest nation - after China and Russia - to express concern over a proposed UN resolution to condemn Syria's actions.

Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota said such a resolution could inflame tensions in the Middle East.

"Syria is a very pivotal country when you look at Middle East stability. The last thing we want to do is to contribute to exacerbating tensions in what could be considered one of the most tense regions in the world."

The draft - proposed by Britain and France - stops short of authorising concrete action, but even so it is not clear when or if it might be put to a vote, correspondents say.

Russia and China have already said they strongly oppose the resolution, with Moscow insisting that Damascus must settle its internal conflict without any foreign interference.

At the scene

Yayladagi is now home to hundreds of refugees living in white canvas tents provided by the Red Crescent.

The people living in the camp are prevented by the Turkish authorities from speaking to the media, but others who are mingling with the Turkish population more generally and living with relatives are giving some accounts of what is happening in Syria.

One group of three who has just reached Turkey says there are now 50 tanks around Jisr al-Shughour and they have little doubt about what will happen. But the military seems to be taking its time.

And if, as a Syrian government spokesperson suggests, the army does go on the offensive in north-west Syria, then the scale of the population movement could be substantially increased.

Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said Moscow was against such a move because the situation in Syria did not threaten international peace and security.

The anticipated crackdown on Jisr al-Shughour is in response to claims by Damascus that armed gangs killed 120 members of the security forces there.

It says local residents have requested the army's intervention to restore peace and quiet.

But dissenting accounts say the violence was sparked by deserting soldiers, and that loyal troops have massacred peaceful civilians.

Human rights groups say more than 1,100 people have been killed since protests began in February against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, and it now appears several hundred security forces may also have died.

Hiding out

In the town of Yayladagi on the Turkish side of the Syrian border, many refugees are sheltering in a tent city run by the Red Crescent, says the BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones, who is there.

There are plans to set up a second camp in Altinozu.

A Turkish official who spoke anonymously earlier told the BBC the influx of Syrians was sharply increasing, and that the latest arrivals included several dozen wounded in security crackdowns.

Most of the refugees were too frightened to speak to our correspondent.

Map

But one man, who spoke on condition his identity be concealed, said he had made a three-hour trek from Jisr al-Shughour, dodging Syrian soldiers along the way.

"The circumstances there are very difficult," the man told our correspondent. "They are planning to invade."

He said an estimated 30,000 Syrian soldiers were massing in a nearby village - but added that hundreds of soldiers had also deserted and were also gathering on the border hoping to make an escape into Turkey.

Another refugee said 13 or 14 tanks were now surrounding Jisr al-Shughour.

The refugees' testimony cannot be independently verified, but appears to chime with the testimony of others, such as "Youssef", an unofficial spokesman for the refugees who spoke to the BBC World Service.

Most international journalists have been denied entry into Syria.

'Restoring peace'

Reem Haddad said: ''They are fleeing from the armed groups who have massacred 120 people''

Reem Haddad, a spokeswoman for the Syrian information ministry, confirmed in an interview with the BBC that Syrian troops were gathering around Jisr al-Shughour.

But she said they had been asked by residents to restore peace and quiet after the violence she blamed on "armed groups".

She said there was no influx of refugees into Turkey, but just the normal passage of Syrians across to the border to Turkish villages where their relatives lived.

In another development, a committee set up by the Syrian government to examine the circumstances of the death of a 13-year-old boy, Hamza al-Khatib, has delivered its findings.

Protesters say Khatib was tortured to death and he became a symbol of the Syrian uprising.

The committee found that there were "no effects of severity or violence or torture acts" on Khatib's body, except bullet wounds - apparently backing the government account that Khatib died solely from gunshot wounds sustained when he attended anti-government demonstrations in Deraa on 29 April.

'Atrocious'

The UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, and the Pope have urged Damascus to show restraint, with Ms Pillay strongly condemning the Syrian government.

"What we're seeing now in Syria is so atrocious, I felt that I had to strongly condemn the real excesses that are taking [place] there in terms of the regime's oppression of the ordinary aspirations of their own people," she told the BBC.

Pope Benedict XVI said Syria must recognise "the inalienable dignity of all people" if it wished to achieve stability.

The recent protests "show the urgent need for real reforms", the news agency AFP quoted him as saying.

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