Boynuyogun, Turkey – Syria's government suggested Wednesday it was preparing to step up its crackdown on a northern town, even as it called for the return of thousands of refugees who fled to Turkey to escape violence.
Army units that had surrounded Maaret al-Numan were poised to enter the town as a senior military official claimed that "gunmen" inside were "intimidating people into fleeing the area."
Maj. Gen. Riad Haddad, head of the military's political department, said the government feared a repeat of the violence in nearby Jisr al-Shughour, where authorities say gunmen killed 120 officers and security personnel last week, prompting troops to storm the town in Idlib province.
Haddad said the army had not entered Maaret al-Numan "yet," implying they were bracing for a military operation there.
Activists said hundreds of residents continued to flee Maaret al-Numan Wednesday to escape the tank forces on the outskirts. They said the town had come under intermittent shelling in the past days.
The government blames a foreign conspiracy for the violence, which it says is perpetrated by religious extremists and terrorists seeking to destabilize the country.
On Wednesday, thousands of people staged a pro-regime demonstration, carrying pictures of the president and shouting: "The people, want Bashar Assad!"
The protesters unfurled a gigantic 2300 meter long Syrian flag along the upscale Mezzeh boulevard in the capital. Syrian TV said the demonstration was to express "Syrian national unity and Syria's rejection of foreign interference in its internal affairs."
Some 8000 Syrians have already sought refuge in camps in neighboring Turkey following a military crackdown that authorities said was to snuff out "armed terrorists" in the region.
Syrian Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud called on residents of the town of Jisr al-Shughour to return, saying security, electricity, water and communications have been restored and the area is now safe.
Mahmoud said following a Cabinet meeting late Tuesday that the government had tasked the Syrian Red Crescent Society with coordinating with Turkish authorities to guarantee the return of refugees.
Haddad said army units were also surrounding al-Boukamal area near the Iraqi border "to protect the borders."
Anti-government activists said the military also had surrounded al-Boukamal, an area that was a major smuggling route for insurgents and weapons into Iraq in the 2000s. Syrian officials have expressed concern over a reverse flow of arms into Syria, and in March security forces seized a large quantity of weapons hidden in a truck coming from Iraq.
Activists say more than 1400 Syrians have died and some 10,000 have been detained in the government crackdown since the popular uprising began in mid-March, inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Haddad said "special units" were involved in the military operations in the north but denied widespread witness accounts that elite Syrian troops led by President Bashar al-Assad's brother, Maher, had been involved.
"The Fourth Division has not been entrusted with any mission until now," he said, adding the president's brother was not the commander of the division but of a unit within the division.
The rare briefing by a military official signaled Syria was going out of its way to try to clear its image and deny reports of cracks within the military.
Haddad said armed forces were "coherent and carry out all tasks entrusted to them."
"There is no split in the Syrian army. It is coherent and has the mandates to end these painful events Syria is passing through," he said.
Haddad said 3000 displaced people from Jisr al-Shughour have returned to their towns and villages on Tuesday, hours after the Syrian government's appeal on all those who have fled to Turkey to return.