Syria steps up attacks ahead of cease-fire

An image obtained by the Associated Press on Friday, April 6, 2012. purportedly shows a mass burial of people allegedly killed in recent shelling in Taftnaz, Syria.
AP Photo

(AP) BEIRUT - Syrian troops shelled restive areas and sent tanks and snipers into battle against rebels in the capital's suburbs on Friday, broadening a government offensive that appeared aimed at crushing pockets of opposition less than a week before an internationally sponsored cease-fire is to take hold, activists said.

With fighting escalating, the stream of Syrians fleeing to neighboring Turkey has picked up considerably, as about one-third of the total of 24,000 refugees arrived in the past two weeks, Turkish officials said. Some 2,500 crossed the border on Thursday alone, said Ankara's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, adding that the daily flow has doubled since Syria promised last week to abide by a truce.

Davutoglu told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday his country would seek U.N. assistance if the influx continues. Turkey has in the past floated the idea of creating a small buffer zone inside Syria if refugee flows become overwhelming, setting the stage for possible further escalation. "These developments are seriously worrying us," Davutoglu said of the intensifying violence.

The apparent trigger for the latest rush of refugees was an offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces this week near the town of Idlib, close to Turkey. Activists reported scores dead in the village of Taftanaz, and said another village nearby, Killi, was being shelled Friday.

"They devastated Taftanaz, all houses demolished, everything destroyed," Hikmet Saban, a Syrian refugee who reached Turkey, told Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency. "Helicopters and tanks are bombarding continuously. Taftanaz has been burnt to the ground for three days." Activists posted video they said showed a helicopter gunship firing a missile at Taftanaz and a local mosque hit by shelling.

Dozens of refugees, including a young man on crutches and a defector from the Syrian army in military camouflage, were huddled behind razor wire on the Syria-Turkey border Friday, waiting to cross into Turkey, according to footage shown on Turkey's state TV. Turkish soldiers registered their names before letting them in.

U.N. chief: Syria crisis getting worse
Red Cross presses for aid access in Syria

In Syria's central city of Homs, thick black smoke billowed from a residential area as the sounds of heavy gunfire and explosions could be heard. "Intense shelling by Assad's gangs," a man could be heard saying while filming what appeared to be a house on fire. "May God help us."

Regime forces also struck the town of Rastan, just north of Homs, with heavy machine-guns and mortars, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Ground troops later tried to push their way into the city, clashing with opposition fighters, the group said.

The government has been laying siege to Rastan since rebels took control of it in late January. Rebels are in control of Rastan town — but not the strategic Rastan bridge, which is the main link to the country's north. Over the past year, the rebels have tried repeatedly to overrun the bridge and break the siege.

Government forces also broadened an offensive in the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Saqba, Arbeen and Dumair, exchanging fire with rebels, activists said. The Observatory said four members of the military were killed.

Tanks fired at buildings and snipers set up positions atop a 12-story medical building in the sprawling Douma district, about 8 miles outside Damascus, said activist Mohammed Saeed. He said two people were killed by random tank fire.