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Thousands flee Syria, escape into Turkey

GUVECCI, Turkey -- Syrian troops and heavy armor encircled a restive northern town yesterday and hundreds of people fled through a single escape route across the lush Turkish border, sharply escalating the upheaval that threatens Syria's authoritarian regime.

The town of Jisr al-Shughour emptied as its residents crossed olive groves and traveled gravel roads, trying to get away from the tanks and elite forces surrounding them, a resident and activist said. Turkey's foreign minister said more than 2,400 Syrians had crossed the border, which was opened for refugees.

As more Syrians took up temporary residence in tents and with Turkish relatives, the uprising that targeted President Bashar Assad drew increasing scrutiny abroad.

In Geneva, Navi Pillay, the UN's high commissioner for Human Rights, accused Syria of trying to "bludgeon its population into submission" by attacking anti-government protesters with snipers, tanks and artillery.

A man who stayed behind in Jisr al-Shughour said the town was all but empty and people in a nearby village had warned that hundreds of soldiers were massing, along with 27 tanks and 50 armored personnel carriers.

"It seems they are ready to launch the attack," he said, asking that his name not be used for fear of reprisals.

Syrian activists say more than 1,300 people have died in the crackdown on the 11-week uprising, most of them unarmed civilians; a government spokeswoman countered that 500 security forces had died in the uprising, including 120 who died in the Jisr al-Shughour area this week.

"The only instance where security forces have fired is when they have been fired at," Reem Haddad told Britain's Sky News. "How have these people been killed for goodness sake if no one is firing at them?"

Groups of Syrians were crossing into Turkey by the hour from the province of Idlib, on motorbikes, pickup trucks and on foot.

"I don't want to die. I want Bashar Assad to go," said one Syrian teenager, who identified himself only by his first name, Ahmad, fearing reprisals from the Syrian government.

Activists say more than 10,000 people have been detained since the uprising began in mid-March.

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