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

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.

The UN's human rights chief has urged Syria not to "bludgeon" 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.

Russia and China have now said they strongly oppose the draft resolution, with Moscow saying Syria must settle its internal conflict without any foreign interference.

"The situation in this country, in our opinion, does not pose a threat to international peace and security," a Russian foreign ministry spokesman is quoted as saying by Russian state media.

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 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.

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 to 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."

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.

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".

Meanwhile, 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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