Syrian army raids flashpoint town
Damascus - Syria's army on Friday launched a raid on "armed gangs" in the flashpoint town of Jisr al-Shughur, where authorities say 120 police and troops were massacred this week.
"Army units have started their mission to control Jisr al-Shughur and neighbouring villages and arrest the armed gangs," state television said, adding that the raid had been launched "at the request of residents".
One witness said "military forces bombarded the villages around Jisr al-Shughur in their advance upon the town".
"Soldiers torched wheat fields in the village of al-Ziyara," 15km southeast of Jisr al-Shughur, he said.
Rights activists said almost all of the 50 000 inhabitants of Jisr al-Shughur had fled - some to neighbouring Turkey - since tanks and troops began earlier this week to converge on the northwestern town.
Syrian state television blamed "armed terrorist gangs" on Wednesday as it ran images of the "massacres" in Jisr al-Shughur last weekend that it said had resulted in the deaths of 120 police and troops.
Opposition activists and various witnesses, however, say the deaths resulted from a mutiny by troops who refused orders to crack down on anti-regime protesters.
"The armed groups terrorised residents and committed atrocities. They burned harvests and bushes around the town," according to the television report, which showed residents urging the army to intervene.
State television also accused the armed groups of "photographing themselves dressed in military uniforms before the arrival of the Syrian army, so as to send the images to (foreign) television channels that have become an instrument in the tendentious campaign being waged against Syria".
Thirty-five people, including eight security agents, were killed in Jisr al-Shughur and neighbouring villages on Sunday, where military and security operations have been underway since June 4, according to Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The latest crackdown comes as President Bashar al-Assad's regime comes under mounting international pressure over accusations of massacres of pro-democracy protesters and rights activists.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the Syrian regime of "atrocities" and of not treating protesters "humanely", Anatolia press agency reported on Friday.
"I spoke to Mr Assad four or five days ago ... but (the Syrians) are underestimating the situation ... and sadly, they are not behaving humanely, Erdogan said, according to Anatolia.
Anti-government protests erupted in March and more than 1 100 civilians, including dozens of children, have been killed in the ensuing crackdown, human rights groups say.
Damascus blames the unrest on "armed terrorist gangs" which it says are backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.