BEIRUT — Syrian troops backed by dozens of tanks massed outside a virtually deserted town near the Turkish border Friday, preparing to move in after protesters and mutinous forces rose up against the rule of President Bashar Assad.
Across the country, crowds undaunted by the crackdown in Jisr al-Shughour and elsewhere began to gather for renewed protests after prayers. Activists said security forces shot and killed two people at a protest in the southern province of Daraa, and one person at a demonstration in suburban Damascus, the capital.
Thousands of residents who have fled into Turkey have depicted a week of revolt and mayhem in Jisr al-Shughour, saying Syrian police turned their guns on each other and soldiers shed their uniforms rather than fire on protesters. Syrian state television said Friday the operation aims to restore security in the town, where authorities say 120 officers and security personnel were killed by "armed groups" last week.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has used his close ties to Assad to press the Syrian leader to make concessions to the protesters, described the crackdown as "savagery." His government has said it will not shut its border to Syrians fleeing violence.
Tanks were on the outer edges of Jisr al-Shughour, preparing to enter, an AP reporter accompanying Syrian troops on a government-organized trip said. He said the army announced the start of operations at around 5 a.m. Friday. Witnesses contacted by telephone said most residents had abandoned the town of up to 45,000.
Citing contacts inside Syria, Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said more than 10,000 soldiers, including elite units, were involved. Helicopters ferried some troops to the area, he said.
The Associated Press reached residents in the area by telephone on Friday morning, but the lines appeared to be cut later in the day as troops moved through towns and villages surrounding Jisr al-Shughour.
Syria sharply restricts local media and has expelled foreign reporters, making it virtually impossible to independently verify reports about the uprising. The invitation to an AP reporter to accompany troops on the operation in Jisr al-Shughour appeared to reflect a Syrian government effort to counter negative publicity about its crackdown and show the existence of armed gangs.
The military was securing areas on the way to Jisr al-Shughour before bringing in a group of journalists to talk to residents.
"Now we feel safe," said Walida Sheikho, a 50-year-old woman in the village of Foro, near Jisr al-Shughour.
She and other residents offered food, water and juice to the Syrian troops and said the army was deploying in response to their appeals.
Jisr al-Shughour is a predominantly Sunni town with some Alawite and Christian villages nearby. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Syrian television said the operation to "liberate" the town from "armed gangs" came in response to the appeals of residents who were terrorized by the groups. The government has often blamed violence on gunmen and Islamic extremists, though there are widespread accounts of security forces firing on unarmed protesters.
Reports of an imminent operation by the military prompted an exodus of refugees to Turkey, who gave some vivid accounts of the mutiny and crackdown. About 2,800 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey since the nationwide uprising against Assad began three months ago, with most fleeing in the last two days.
State television said armed groups torched crops and wheat fields around Jisr al-Shughour as the army approached.
But a man in the town blamed security forces for the crop-burning. He said the few remaining residents were collecting tires to burn in an attempt to try to block the advance of the army. He said by telephone to an AP reporter in Beirut that a military helicopter flew overhead Thursday night, firing flares on a possible reconnaissance mission.
The resident said about 40 tanks entered the village of Sirmaniyeh, five miles (12 kilometers) from Jisr al-Shughour. He and other activists reported hearing bursts of machine gun fire from the army.
The military operations are part of a crackdown on the three-month-old uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have died in the nationwide crackdown, most of them unarmed civilians. A government spokeswoman has countered that a total of 500 security forces had died in the revolt.
Across Syria on Friday, activists said crowds began to gather after Friday prayers, with demonstrations in the northern city of Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama, Daraa to the south, Bukamal in the east, coastal Latakia, and suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
Activists said security forces opened fire on protesters near the Sheikh Jaber mosque in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, killing one person and wounding six. One activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said there were snipers on rooftops and security checkpoints outside local mosques.
Interviewed on Turkey's ATV television late Thursday, Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said some images coming out of Syria were "unpalatable" and suggested Ankara could support a U.N. Security Council decision against Syria.
He accused Assad of taking the situation "too lightly" and harshly criticized the president's younger brother, Maher, who is believed to command some troops in the Jisr al-Shughour operation. Maher Assad is also in charge of the elite Republican Guard, whose job is to protect the government.
"I say this clearly and openly, from a humanitarian point of view, his brother is not behaving in a humane manner. And he is chasing after savagery," Erdogan said. The interview was posted on the Internet.
The comments reflected Ankara's frustration with Syria after weeks of attempts by Turkish officials to coax Syrian authorities into implementing democratic reforms.
Turkish officials said the Turkish Red Crescent was setting up two new camps near the border, in addition to the one where Syrian refugees have already been placed.
"We can't remain indifferent to helpless people at our doorstep," Sadullah Ergin, a Turkish lawmaker and a former justice minister, said in front of the refugee camp in the border town of Yayladagi.
Earlier, a Syrian refugee at the camp accused Syrian forces of attacking civilians.
"Bashar Assad is killing his own people in order to stay in power," Abdulkerim Haji Yousef, standing behind a fence, told Associated Press Television News.
A group of women also shouted in Arabic: "He is killing children."