After days of relentless shelling and sniper attacks, thousands of Syrian refugees are streaming across the border into Turkey with horrific accounts of mass graves, massacres and burned-out homes.
The latest reports of escalating violence fueled accusations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is rushing to stamp out as much of the year-old uprising as he can before a UN-brokered ceasefire next week.
The trigger for the new waves of refugees was an offensive in Idlib Province, which borders Turkey and has become increasingly rebellious against the al-Assad regime.
Activists reported about 100 dead in the villages of Taftanaz and Killi in recent days.
A photograph provided to The Associated Press by a Syrian activist showed at least a dozen corpses wrapped in blankets in what appeared to be a mass grave in Taftanaz. The AP could not verify the authenticity of the photograph, but witnesses also described a mass grave.
“They destroyed the whole village,” a refugee who asked to be identified by only one name, Anas, said on Friday after fleeing Killi. “If he has to kill, Bashar would even kill 1 million people. He doesn’t care.”
Hikmet Saban, another Syrian refugee who reached Turkey, described the devastation in Taftanaz, located several kilometers outside the city of Idlib.
“Helicopters and tanks are bombarding continuously,” he told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency. “Taftanaz has been burnt to the ground for three days.”
Activists posted video they said showed a helicopter gunship firing a missile at Taftanaz and a mosque hit by shelling.
The escalating violence has dimmed hopes that the fighting, which the UN says has killed more than 9,000 people, will end anytime soon. The country appears to be spiraling toward civil war — a fearsome development that could bring a regional conflagration.
A vital geopolitical linchpin, Syria borders five other nations and has close ties to Iran and powerful militant groups, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Al-Assad last week accepted a ceasefire deadline brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for his forces to pull out of towns and cities by Tuesday and for everyone to lay down their arms by 6am local time on Thursday.
Western leaders have cast doubt on al-Assad’s intentions, suggesting he is playing for time and is not serious about the plan, which aims to pave the way for talks between the regime and the opposition on a political solution.
Syria denies that the revolt is a popular uprising at all, saying instead that it is facing a foreign conspiracy by armed gangs and terrorists who want to destroy the country.
The revolt began in March last year with mostly peaceful protests, but the violent government crackdown has led many to take up weapons. A fighting force called the Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors, is determined to bring down the regime by force of arms.
On Friday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said he spoke by phone for half an hour with al-Assad, who told him the security situation in his country was improving and that he hoped the violence would ease soon.
“He told me there have been more than 2,000 soldier martyrs and a larger number of innocent people who have died as a result of the terrorist plan to remove him from power,” Chavez said in a phone call broadcast live on Venezuela’s state TV.