BEIRUT — Syrian tanks were poised to move into the town of Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday as people continued to flee across the border into Turkey to escape an offensive aimed at restoring government control over the rebellious northern area.
About 5,000 people, including 2,000 defectors from the security forces, have remained in the town to defend it against the expected onslaught of Syrian troops, barricading the streets to keep the tanks at bay, residents say.
Reuters news service reported late Saturday that troops had already entered the town after shelling it.
Most of the violence had previously focused on villages elsewhere in Idlib province, which adjoins Turkey, and where 19 people were reported killed Friday.
Rami Abdelrahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights said troops detained 300 to 400 people in sweeps of neighborhoods on the outskirts of Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday.
But he said he did not expect a particularly brutal crackdown in the town because the Syrian army, for the first time, has invited journalists to accompany it, including a correspondent from the Associated Press. Abdelrahman said he thinks there were also Russian, Chinese and Arab journalists traveling with the military, although that could not be independently confirmed.
Abdelrahman said the Syrian government appears intent on showing its few remaining sympathizers that what it calls “armed gangs” are operating in the area and would be unlikely to launch a sustained assault comparable to the one against the southern town of Daraa more than six weeks ago.
“They want to show Russia and China at the Security Council that there are armed men in this area,” he said. “For that reason, they will be soft.”
The Associated Press correspondent traveling with the troops reported that the journalists had come under fire about a mile outside Jisr al-Shughour and that the Syrian military blamed snipers in nearby hills.
Journalists, however, do not appear to be with all the troops sweeping through the province. At least 4,000 civilians have already crossed into Turkey, and thousands more are reported to have fled into the hills to escape the threatened assault. Some have told journalists in Turkey that Syrian troops fired on them as they tried to escape. Reporters were also told that tanks have bombarded villages elsewhere in the province and that soldiers have been burning crops.
The White House denounced Syria on Saturday for “denying humanitarian assistance” and called on it to immediately allow the Red Cross access to the region, news services reported.
Jisr al-Shughour, a town of 50,000, emerged as the latest focus of the Syrian government’s efforts to crush a 12-week-old uprising after Syrian state news media reported that 120 members of the security forces had been killed by the “armed gangs” in the town. Opposition activists say the soldiers were killed by their officers for trying to defect.
Although neither of the conflicting versions can be independently confirmed, there have been persistent reports of defections in the area, which has a long history of dissent and which appears to have moved beyond government control, marking a new phase in the struggle by pro-democracy protesters to oust President Bashar al-Assad.