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Syrian tanks surround mutinous northern city

At least 15,000 troops along with some 40 tanks and armoured vehicles have been deployed in Syria's northern border area, say residents who fear an all-out government assault.

Syrians continued to stream into Turkey on Saturday to seek refuge amid their government's latest crackdown on dissent, which saw tanks and thousands of elite troops surround the restive but mostly abandoned northern city of Jisr al-Shughour.

Residents say at least 15,000 troops along with some 40 tanks and troop carriers have been deployed and they fear an all-out government assault on the region near the Turkish border.

Turkish officials estimate at least 4,300 people have fled the violence and relocated to makeshift camps in southern Turkey in the past two days. That number represents only those who have officially registered. Many others are slipping into the country unobserved and staying with relatives.

The Turkish Red Crescent was setting up temporary tent cities to accommodate the refugees.

Syria's northern border region is the site of a military mutiny against President Bashar Assad, who reports say has tasked his brother with personally heading up the crackdown in the area. The mutiny raises concerns the 12-week popular revolt against Assad's regime is taking on a new dimension, with Jisr al-Shughour's history of Sunni militancy and its proximity to Turkey making it a crucial proving ground for the regime.

Syrian troops backed by tanks, helicopters and heavy armour have been in the area for several days; it was not clear why the army was delaying an assault. Jamil Saeb, an activist who was reached by phone, suggested the army was afraid to take on the people who stayed behind because Jisr al-Shughour residents were "known to be exceptionally fierce." He said several army deserters and officers were still there and have vowed to protect unarmed residents.

Those ranks swelled as a captain and 15 soldiers defected and joined the protesters on Saturday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which documents Syrian anti-government protests. The report could not be independently confirmed.

Villagers who appear to be welcoming Syrian troops pose just outside Jisr al-Shughour during a government-organized visit for the media on Friday. ((Bassem Tellawi/Associated Press))

On Friday, government forces shelled Jisr al-Shughour, where authorities say 120 officers and security personnel were killed by gunmen last week. Activists and refugees said troops also burned farmland in the area and shot protesters who tried to tear down a poster of Assad.Fighting throughout the country on Friday led to the deaths of at least 32 people.

Elsewhere on Friday, in the northwestern town of Maarat al-Numaan, Syrian helicopter gunships fired at pro-democracy protesters, witnesses said. The helicopters opened fire after security forces on the ground killed five protesters, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Human rights groups say more than 1,400 people have been killed during the government's crackdown in response to a nearly three-month uprising against the Assad family's 40-year rule.

With files from The Associated Press