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Syria blocks escape lines to Turkey

BOYNUYOGUN REFUGEE CAMP, Turkey -- Syrian troops combing through restive villages near the Turkish border set fire to homes and a bakery yesterday, cutting off a lifeline to thousands of uprooted people stranded in miserable open-air encampments.

Activists said the military carried out mass arrests and threw up checkpoints in the village of Bdama and surrounding areas to block residents from fleeing across the frontier, as thousands of others have done.

Turkey, whose leaders have denounced the Damascus regime's deadly crackdown on dissent, began distributing food to those encamped on the Syrian side of the border, in the first such aid mission since the campaign against anti-government protesters turned into a refugee crisis two weeks ago.

People from the Syrian side were collecting food at the border to take to the stranded families, the local Turkish governor's office said.

With the 3-month-old pro-democracy uprising raging on, the government appeared desperate to put an end to the embarrassing stream of refugees fleeing their homeland. Activists said Syrian authorities at the border were making it more difficult for people to reach Turkey.

As he escaped to this area of Turkey yesterday, one refugee from Bdama, identifying himself only as Hassan, said he could hear gunfire as he fled. "Soldiers have blocked roads and many people are walking through fields and mountains," he said.

Clashes erupted almost two weeks ago in Jisr al-Shughour, in the northern province of Idlib, where activists reported loyalist troops fought with army mutineers who refused to take part in the continuing crackdown on protesters seeking President Bashar Assad's ouster.

Government forces retook that town a week ago, and meanwhile more than 10,500 Syrians fled and are being sheltered in four Turkish refugee camps. An estimated 5,000 others are camped out on the Syrian side of the border, with dwindling resources, trying to remain close to their homes and relatives, avoiding official refugee status that might delay their return.

The Syrian government has called on the displaced people to return, promising safety. But most are staying put as long as the army is occupying their towns, fearing arrest upon return.

Assad was expected to give a speech today in what would be only his third public appearance since the uprising began in mid-March, inspired by the revolutions sweeping the Arab world.

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