|ByÂ Khaled Yacoub Oweis,|
AMMAN: Syrian tanks and helicopters stormed the town of Jisr al-Shughour Sunday, residents said, and state television reported heavy clashes between army troops and gunmen opposed to President Bashar Assad.
More than 5,000 Syrian refugees have crossed the border and a UNHCR spokesman said the Red Crescent was preparing a fourth camp with room for 2,500 more. Witnesses said some 10,000 Syrians were sheltering near the border.
The assault on Jisr al-Shughour, astride a strategic road in northwest Syria, is the latest action by the armed forces to crush demands for political freedom and an end to oppression that pose an unprecedented challenge to Assadâ€™s 11-year rule.
Residents said earlier that most of the townâ€™s 50,000 people had fled toward the Turkish border about 20 kms away and tanks and helicopters were shelling and machinegunning the town.
Damascus has banned most foreign correspondents from the country, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.
â€œHeavy confrontations are raging between army units and members of armed organizations taking up positions in the surroundings of Jisr al-Shughour and inside it,â€ state television said.
Army units defused bombs and explosive charges planted by gunmen on bridges and roads into the town, it said. â€œTwo members of the armed organizations were killed, large numbers of them arrested, and weapons in their possession were seized.â€
State television said the forces uncovered mass graves of security men killed and buried by armed groups in Jisr al-Shughour and said their bodies bore marks of â€œatrocities.â€ It did not give details.
The government said last week that â€œarmed gangsâ€ had killed more than 120 security personnel in the town after large demonstrations there. Refugees and rights groups said the dead were mutinous soldiers, shot for refusing to fire on civilians.
â€œWhen the massacre happened in Jisr al-Shughour the army split, or they started fighting each other and blamed it on us,â€ a woman refugee, who refused to give her name, told Turkish news channel NTV.
A senior Western diplomat in Damascus told Reuters: â€œThe official version is improbable. Most people had left Jisr al-Shughour after seeing the regimeâ€™s scorched earth policy, shelling and the heavy use of armour in the valley.â€
Asked if there were clashes in the town Mustapha, a 39-year-old mason who fled early Sunday, told Reuters â€œWhat clashes? The army is shelling the town from tanks. Everyone has been fleeing.â€
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