Infighting has erupted among Syrian military forces, as the Damascus regime distributed weapons among the Alawite community in the flashpoint town of Jisr al-Shugur, Syrians at the Turkish border said Sunday.
"Right now they are attacking Jisr al-Shugur (nortwest Syria) with tanks, helicopters and artillary," said 27 year-old Ali, who obtained the information from people who fled the city Sunday and arrived at the Turkish border.
The Turkish border is only 40 kilometers (25 miles) from Jisr al-Shugur, which has been under heavy Syrian army attack for days.
"Now there is infighting among the soldiers and one group is trying to protect the civilians. They blew up two bridges in Jisr al-Shugur," he said.
Ali, who met an AFP reporter on his way to the Turkish side of the border, usually used by smugglers, was going to buy food for his family waiting on the other side in Syria.
He said that the last residents of the Syrian villages under assault by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces would soon head to the border.
"Those who stayed begin to leave as the army comes close. If soldiers approach, they will cross into Turkey," he said.
More than 5,000 refugees have arrived in Turkey so far and were settled in camps erected by the Turkish Red Crescent. Thousands more flocked to the border line, hesitating to cross.
"But it is more difficult now to come near the Turkish border. Soldiers and plainclothes police prevent refugees' cars from passing. We must work around secretly," said 24-year-old Mohammed, who was on the same trail used by smugglers.
"Right now the regime arms all Alawite families. They give guns to every man above the age 15," Mohammed said, referring to the Alawite religious group, an offshoot of the Shiite community. The Assad family comes from the Alawite minority.
Mohammed's account was interrupted by a Turkish soldier, tasked with preventing refugees from crossing into Turkey without official permission.
Hostile at first, the soldier later softened his tone and allowed two Syrian kids carrying loaves of bread cross into Syria.
"If there is danger, we will allow everyone in Turkey," the soldier said. "But Assad will never dare to send his army over here. Here is the Turkish army," he said.
For now the Syrian army is totally absent in the border area, he added. "In 14 months I have not seen a single soldier on the other side of the border," he said.
Syrian troops Sunday fought violent battles with "armed gangs" in Jisr Al-Shughur, Syrian state television said.
The army entered the town "after defusing dynamite placed on the bridges and roads by the armed groups," the report said.
Syria's Idlib province, which encompasses Jisr al-Shughur, has long been a hotbed of hostility towards the Assad regime.
Syrian troops have been conducting military operations in the area for days, following what the authorities said was the massacre of 120 policemen by "armed gangs" in the town on Monday.