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.

About 1,000 Syrians crossed the border overnight, a Turkish official said, bringing the total number of refugees in Turkey to about 1,600.

Pope Benedict XVI and the UN have urged Syria not to attack its own people.

It comes after the UK and France proposed a UN resolution condemning Syria’s suppression of protests.

The draft 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 – with Russia’s attitude still a key uncertainty.

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 1,000 people have been killed since protests began in February against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, and it now appears that several hundred security forces may also have died.

Hiding out

The BBC’s Owen Bennett-Jones, who is in Guvecci on the Turkish side of the border with Syria, said on Thursday morning that trucks were arriving and disgorging passengers on the Syrian side every 10 or 15 minutes.

Some passengers were quickly seizing the chance to slip into Turkey under the eye of Turkish border guards who have been ordered by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to allow them in.

Other Syrians, our correspondent says, are hiding out in fields and orchards, waiting to see how ferocious the army campaign will be before deciding whether to move on to Turkey.

A Turkish official who spoke anonymously says the influx of Syrians is sharply increasing, and the latest arrivals have included several dozen wounded in security crackdowns.

Many are sheltering in a tent city run by the Red Crescent in the town of Yayladagi, with plans to set up a second camp in Altinozu.

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

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 accord 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.

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 local 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 the border to Turkish villages where their relatives lived.

The armed groups had cut off roads leading to Jisr al-Shughour, she added.

“No country in the world allows this to happen to it,” said Ms Haddad. “The government has a presence and it must be felt.”

‘Deplorable’

The UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, and the Pope have urged Damascus to show restraint.

Mr Pillay said Syria should halt “its assault on its own people”, saying it was “deplorable for any government to attempt to bludgeon its population into submission”.

Pope 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.

The draft UN resolution submitted by Britain and France with the support of Germany and Portugal condemns the systematic violation of human rights in Syria. It demands an immediate end to violence, and access for humanitarian workers.

It stresses that the only solution to the crisis is through an inclusive and Syrian-led process, which correspondents say is an attempt to satisfy Council members who want to avoid another Libya-style intervention.

But it remains unclear if or when the resolution will be passed, says the BBC’s world affairs correspondent Nick Childs.

Moscow still says it doesn’t support it, though it is not clear whether it would veto the motion. The position of other countries on the Security Council – like China and India – is also uncertain.

Source: BBC

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