BEIRUT -- Syrian troops backed by dozens of tanks massed outside a virtually deserted town near the Turkish border Friday, shelling villages and preparing an assault after protesters and mutinous forces rose against the government. Across Syria, undaunted crowds gathered for renewed protests after prayers, and at least six were killed, activists said.
Syrians fleeing the violence continued to pour into Turkey. More than 3,200 had crossed by Friday, nearly all of them in the past two days, a Turkish official said. Syria's state-run TV said a civilian and a member of the security forces were killed in Daraa, where the uprising against President Bashar Assad began in mid-March.
The Syrians who escaped into Turkey depicted a week of revolt and mayhem in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, saying 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.
Syria's government has a history of violent retaliation against dissent, including a three-week bombing campaign against the city of Hama that crushed an uprising there in 1982. Jisr al-Shughour itself came under government shelling in 1980, with a reported 70 people killed.
Tanks were on the outer edges of Jisr al-Shughour on Friday, 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 were involved.
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 to Jisr al-Shughour appeared to reflect a Syrian government effort to counter criticism and prove the existence of armed gangs.
"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 they had appealed for help from the army.
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.
In Sirmaniyeh, a nearby village, journalists with the Syrian military saw a parked army bus, its front windshield smashed by gunfire. The army said the bus was ambushed early Friday, and that driver escaped unhurt after a bullet struck his protective vest.
Journalists were also shown eight grenades on a roadside in Ziara, another village in the area.
State television said armed groups torched crops and wheat fields around Jisr al-Shughour as the army approached.
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 army advance. Speaking by phone, he told an AP reporter in Beirut that about 40 tanks rolled into a village five miles (12 kilometers) from Jisr al-Shughour. He and other activists reported hearing bursts of machine gun fire.
Human rights groups say the crackdown has killed more than 1,300 people, most of them unarmed civilians. The government says a total of 500 security forces have also been killed.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross appealed to Syria to grant access to the wounded and people held after clashes with security forces.
Jakob Kellenberger, the ICRC president, said the group hasn't been allowed "meaningful access."
Activists said demonstrators gathered after Friday prayers across Syria, including in the northern city of Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama, Bukamal in the east, and suburbs of Damascus.
Activists said security forces opened fire on protesters near the Sheikh Jaber mosque in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, killing three people and wounding several others. One activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said there were snipers on rooftops and security checkpoints outside local mosques.
Around 200 people, mostly women and children, staged an anti-Assad protest at the camp in Altinozu, Turkey, one of three set up by the Turkish government.
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 criticized Assad'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.
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. A local official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government policy, said more than 3,200 people had crossed since mid-March, nearly all of them in the past two days.
"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 AP Television News.