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Syrian forces sweep out to borders

Syrian tanks are pushing toward more towns and villages near the Turkish and Iraqi borders, expanding the government crackdown against rebels.

Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have abandoned all pretence of offering reform, sending tanks, helicopter gunships and only his most loyal forces into population centres to crush dissent.

Anti-government activists reported tanks in the northern market town of Maaret al-Numan and in smaller villages near Jisr al-Shughour, a town stormed on Sunday by Syrian elite forces backed by helicopters.

Human rights activist Mustafa Osso said tanks were also moving in the large eastern province of Deir el-Zour, which borders Iraq.

The growing military campaign has sent some 8,000 Syrians fleeing to neighbouring Turkey, where they offer a grim picture of what they left behind.

Troops "damage homes and buildings, kill even animals, set trees and farmlands on fire," said Mohammad Hesnawi, 26, who fled Jisr al-Shughour. He accused pro-government militias known as "shabiha" of atrocities there.

Turkish authorities were giving priority to women and children fleeing the border village of al-Hasaniya, where people "are eating fruit out of the trees, including apples and cherries," since there's not enough food for all, Mr Hesnawi said.

Only sketchy reports are emerging from the embattled northern area, since foreign journalists have been expelled from Syria.

Some analysts have said Assad is trying to keep the opposition from establishing a base, as happened in Libya, where the rebels trying to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi took over the coastal city of Benghazi.

Assad initially had promised mild reforms, but his gestures have been rejected by the thousands who have staged protests across Syria, who say they will stop until he leaves power, ending his family's 40-year ruling dynasty.

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