Middle East

Syria: Refugees flee border camps as troops deploy

Syrian refugees enter the Turkish side of the border on 23 June 2011
Many Syrians have fled to refugee camps in neighbouring Turkey

Hundreds of Syrian refugees are fleeing across the border into Turkey to escape an assault by Syrian troops in the area, witnesses say.

Tanks and snipers have entered the village of Khirbet al-Jouz - a base for makeshift refugee camps.

One group of people broke through barbed wire to cross the border close to the Turkish village of Guvecci.

More than 1,300 people are estimated to have been killed in the government crackdown on the popular uprising.

Thousands more protesters have been detained since the crackdown began in March, opposition activists say.

Several Syrian cities - including Homs and Hama - have declared a general strike after two days of deadly clashes with security forces and supporters of President Bashar al-Assad.

'Terrorising people'

The recent military offensive in the north of the country has forced thousands of Syrians to flee towards Turkey.

Many crossed the border, but a significant number opted to camp on the Syrian side of the border - preferring to remain on Syrian soil as long as possible.

One man said 2,130 people in his camp had fled Khirbet al-Jouz to avoid being attacked by the army, which was surrounding the numerous camps on the Syrian side of the border.

"This is a way of terrorising people," the man told BBC Arabic.

"Our group here is informing the world of what is going on inside Syria. [The authorities] don't like it, so they want to either arrest or kill these people, so that there are no more people who can follow the news from inside Syria. It is just terror for everybody."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the increased presence of Syrian troops so close to the Turkish border as "very worrisome". She told reporters the move merely exacerbated the plight of Syrian refugees while increasing the risk of a frontier clash with Turkey.

Contrary to reports that thousands of Syrians were fleeing into Turkey, Damascus said on Thursday that more than 500 Syrians had returned to their homes; it says they had been forced to flee the country by armed gunmen.

Turkish mobilisation

A BBC journalist who visited Khirbet al-Jouz at the weekend said the village was all but deserted by resident who anticipated the army moving in.

Troops moved into the village early on Thursday morning.

Tanks and soldiers were seen on the outskirts, snipers were spotted on roof tops, and one witness saw a machine gun position being established.

A watchtower which had been flying a Turkish flag - put there by Syrians grateful for Turkey's help - was now flying a Syrian flag, witnesses said.

Villagers and journalists in Guvecci could see military activity across the border.

Umit Bektas, a Reuters photographer positioned on a hillside on the Turkish side of the border, said he had seen armoured vehicles taking up positions on the Syrian hillside, apparently with the aim of preventing more fleeing Syrians from reaching the camps next to the border.

Earlier on Thursday, hundreds of people broke through barbed wire to cross into Turkey, while another group of several hundred people were spotted further down the same road.

They were taken in more than 30 buses to refugee camps in Turkey, Mr Bektas told the BBC Newshour programme.

Those fleeing were expected to join some 11,000 Syrians already taking refuge at tent cities erected by the Turkish Red Crescent in the border province of Hatay.

Turkish forces have mobilised along the border. The BBC's Jonathan Head in Istanbul says it is not clear how the Turkish government - which has been increasingly critical of Syria - will respond to seeing troops harrying refugees who had assumed they were under de facto Turkish protection.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem on Thursday called on Turkey to review its position, stressing that Ankara had always been a close ally of Damascus.

Syrian authorities also say they have eased restrictions to allow opposition figures to attend a conference in Damascus on Monday, says the BBC's Lina Sinjab in the capital.

However, only independents - those not affiliated to opposition groups - will be allowed to attend. Signatories of the 2005 Damascus Declaration - a joint call for reform by Syria's most well-known intellectuals and dissidents - are also barred.