Syrian government forces are massing around a northwest town to deliver what Damascus promises will be a "decisive" blow against "terrorists" it claimed killed 120 members of its security forces in recent days.
Video footage posted on the Internet appears to show a Syrian military column rolling toward the town of Jisr al-Shughur, even as hundreds fled to neighboring Turkey.
Residents said some 40 tanks and armored vehicles were four miles from the town, which has largely emptied, according to Reuters.
One recently married college graduate died when he was shot by Syrian security forces on Sunday, as he volunteered to help the wounded, his father Ali Haj Ibrahim told the news agency.
"We are not taking condolences," Mr. Ibrahim said of the death of his son Bilal. "We consider his martyrdom a wedding for the defense of freedom."
Conflicting reports on the violence
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has launched a vicious military assault on antigovernment elements in recent months, causing 1,300 deaths according to rights groups, and courting a UN Security Council condemnation that will come to a vote today.
Some 500 Syrians from Jisr al-Shughur have crossed the nearby border to Turkey – more than 220 on Wednesday alone – in anticipation of a Syrian government attack that state-run news organs say will be "decisive," as the army carries out its "national duty to restore security." At least 35 were admitted to a Turkish hospital with bullet and shrapnel wounds.
Syrian state-run TV has repeatedly shown gruesome footage of slain soldiers and police, who it claims died in an ambush at the hands of "hundreds" of armed gangs.
Such violence "will not be tolerated" said Syria's interior minister Ibrahim al-Shaar. The government "will react with strictness and power according to law."
Syrian opposition sources say the high death toll is a result of clashes that began in the town after Friday prayers, when residents began fighting back against shooting by security forces, later using weapons acquired from soldiers as they did so.
One version adds that some Syrian troops refused to shoot at the protesters, and were killed by their fellow soldiers.
The fight lasted for days. Amateur video footage on Tuesday appeared to show residents gathered at night with branches in their hands, chanting for the military to stay out of Jisr al-Shughur.
Europe pushes UN Security Council condemnation of Syria
At the UN Security Council on Wednesday, European powers were determined to pass a resolution condemning Syria for the brutal military crackdown.
Though Turkish officials in the border region sought to limit access to journalists, they prepared for an influx of Syrians. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey – which has a visa-free arrangement with Syria, and close ties with the Assad regime – would accept refugees.
"At this point, it's out of the question for Turkey to close its doors to refugees coming from Syria," Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday. "The recent developments are really unfortunate. ... We hope Syria will have more tolerant attitude towards civilians."
Jisr al-Shughur has been the site of violence in the past, when it was known as a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. It was shelled in 1980 by Syria's then-leader Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president,who battled Sunni Islamist groups trying to end rule by his minority Alawite sect.
Assad finally crushed them in Syria in 1982 by destroying the city of Hama – some 45 miles southeast of Jisr al-Shughur – leaving between 20,000 and 40,000 dead.