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Tanks deploy in east, Syrians flee assault on north

Thousands of Syrians fled the historic town of Maarat al-Numaan to escape tank forces thrusting into the...

Anti-government activists gesture on the streets of Daraa, 100kms south of the capital Damascus on March 23, 2011. Picture: AFP.

Thousands of Syrians fled the historic town of Maarat al-Numaan to escape tank forces thrusting into the country's north in a widening military campaign to crush protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

In the tribal east, where all of Syria's 380,000 barrels per day of oil is produced, tanks and armoured vehicles deployed in the city of Deir al-Zor and around Albu Kamal on the border with Iraq, a week after tens of thousands of people took to the streets demanding an end to Assad's autocratic rule.

"The army is coming, find safety for yourselves and your families!" residents said mosque loudspeakers announced on Tuesday in Maarat al-Numaan, a town of 100,000 that straddles the main north-south highway linking Damascus with Syria's second largest city, the merchant hub of Aleppo.

Syrian forces pushed towards Maarat al-Numaan after arresting hundreds of people in nearby villages close to Jisr al-Shughour, residents said.

Syrian state television said security forces "are pursuing and hunting down the remnants of the members of terrorist armed organisations in the areas surrounding Jisr al-Shughour in order to enable the residents to return to their neighbourhoods."

Residents from Maarat al-Numaan, Jisr al-Shughour and surrounding villages streamed towards Aleppo and to villages in the desert to the east, while some headed to neighbouring Turkey, where more than 8,500 Syrians have already fled.

They sought shelter across the border to escape Assad's latest assault on protests demanding more freedoms in a country dominated by the Assad family, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, for the last 41 years. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim.

Around 70 percent of Maarat al-Numaan's residents have fled, Othman al-Bedeiwi, a pharmacy professor there told Reuters by telephone. He said helicopters, which also fired at protesters on Friday, had been ferrying troops to a staging camp in Wadi al-Deif, several km (miles) from the town. Syria has banned most foreign correspondents since the unrest began, making it difficult to verify accounts of events.

On the edge of a limestone massif in a relatively prosperous agricultural area, Maarat al-Numaan is a centre of Muslim pilgrimage with a rebellious history. It was the site of the massacre of thousands of men, women and children by Crusader forces in 1099. In modern times, the town was focus of a brutal campaign to crush Islamist and leftist challengers to Bashar's father, the late Hafez al-Assad.

CO-RELIGIONISTS

In the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, witnesses said several tanks deployed inside the provincial capital, on the Euphrates river, after security forces pulled out from the streets last week. But protests continued and a violent confrontation occurred this week between Assad loyalists and protesters during which several people were seriously injured, they added.

"A pattern keeps repeating itself across Syria. The local garrison goes to their headquarters and leaves a city to try and create disorder, then tanks and troops are sent in to subdue protesters," an activist in the city said. "Sadly the invention of rubber bullets has not reached Syria," he said. "It is live ammunition on protesters or nothing.

"Rights campaigners said around 20 tanks and armoured vehicles also deployed around the town of Albu Kamal to the east of Deir al-Zor city, which is also an official crossing point to Iraq, but said there were no troops inside the town.

Deir al-Zor province borders Iraq's Sunni heartland. The two sides are linked by family ties and trade routes that preceded the creation of the two states by colonial powers in the 1920s.

France, with British support, has spearheaded efforts for the United Nations Security Council to condemn Assad's repression of the protests. But Russia and China have suggested they might use their veto power to kill the resolution.

Turkey has set up four refugee camps just inside its borders and the state-run Anatolian news agency said on Tuesday authorities might provide more. It said the number of refugees, mainly from the Syrian northwestern region of Jisr al-Shughour, had reached 8,538, more than half of them children.

Fleeing refugees described shootings by troops and Alawite gunmen loyal to Assad, known as "shabbiha," and the burning of land and crops in a scorched earth policy to subdue people of the region after large protests.