BOYNUYOGUN, Turkey (AP) — Syrian tanks pushed toward more towns and villages near the Turkish and Iraqi borders on Tuesday, expanding the crackdown against a 12-week uprising to the north and east as more Syrians flee their homes.
Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have abandoned all pretense of offering reform, sending tanks, helicopter gunships and only his most loyal forces into population centers to crush dissent.
Anti-government activists reported tanks in the northern market town of Maaret al-Numan and in smaller villages near Jisr al-Shughour, a town stormed Sunday by Syrian elite forces backed by helicopters.
Human rights activist Mustafa Osso said tanks were also moving in the large eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq. The Syrian government claimed to have thwarted cross-border weapons smuggling in that area.
The growing military campaign has sent some 8,000 Syrians fleeing for the lives to neighboring Turkey, where they offer a grim picture of what they left behind.
Troops "damage homes and buildings, kill even animals, set trees and farmlands on fire," said Mohammad Hesnawi, 26, who fled Jisr al-Shughour. He accused pro-government militias known as "shabiha" of atrocities there.
Turkish authorities were giving priority to women and children fleeing the border village of al-Hasaniya, where people "are eating fruit out of the trees, including apples and cherries," since there's not enough food for all, Hesnawi said.
Only sketchy reports are emerging from the embattled northern area, since foreign journalists have been expelled from Syria.
Some analysts have said Assad is trying to keep the opposition from establishing a base, as happened in Libya, where the rebels trying to overthrow Moammar Gadhafi took over the coastal city of Benghazi. Assad initially had promised mild reforms, but his gestures have been rejected by the thousands who have staged protests across Syria, who say they won't stop until he leaves power, ending his family's 40-year ruling dynasty.
It's a scenario that also played out in Tunisia and Egypt, where popular demands increased almost daily until people accepted nothing less than the regime's end.
In the past week, as the government appeared to be on the verge of losing control of major swaths of the country, it abandoned most pretenses at reform.
The brutal crackdown on the uprising, the most serious threat to the Assad family's power, has altered a view held by many in Syria and abroad of Assad as a reformer at heart, one constrained by members of his late father's old guard who were fighting change, especially privileged members of the Assads' minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
After inheriting power 11 years ago from his father, the late Hafez al-Assad, the president cultivated the image of a modernizer in a stagnant dictatorship. But he has had to juggle many factors in the Syrian political landscape: its sizable minority populations; a majority Sunni population drawn in part to Muslim fundamentalism; an influential military, and alliances with such external Shiite forces as Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.
Most of the major military operations have been carried out in border areas, including Jisr al-Shughour, the southern city of Daraa, near the border with Jordan, and the central province of Homs, bordering Lebanon.
Activists say more than 1,400 Syrians have died and some 10,000 have been detained in the government crackdown since the popular uprising began in mid-March.
Turkey's prime minister, opening his borders to those fleeing the government onslaught, has accused Assad's regime of "savagery," but also said he would reach out to the Syrian leader to help solve the crisis.
Turkey and Syria once nearly went to war, but the two countries have cultivated warm relations in recent years, lifting travel visa requirements for their citizens and promoting business ties.
They share a 520-mile (850-kilometer) border. Refugees and relatives on both sides appeared to be crossing unimpeded around the village of Guvecci.
In an apparent anticipation of more refugees, workers of the Turkish Red Crescent, the equivalent of the Red Cross, began building a fourth tent camp Monday near the border.
Mroue reported from Beirut.
Follow Bassem Mroue at http://twitter.com/bmroue