Hundreds of Syrian refugees were stranded in the mountainous woodland bordering Turkey last night as they fled convoys of tanks and troops which were reportedly heading north towards the town of Jisr al-Shughour.
Families carrying bundles of clothes and other belongings arrived at the border fence after travelling on foot or in convoys of pick-up trucks and cars.
They were fleeing the area after the government vowed a tough response to the deaths of 120 members of the security forces at the hands of so-called "armed groups", reported by state television earlier this week.
Refugees contacted by phone told The Independent they were escaping from the area because they feared for their lives.
A 26-year-old man named Mohammad said: "I arrived at the Turkish border in a three-and-a-half-ton pick-up truck carrying lots of people in the back. At one point we broke down, but I found another car and got to the border.
"My family runs a nursing home and orphanage in Jisr al-Shughour opposite the security-service headquarters. There are about 110 elderly and handicapped people living there, but all the employees have left. We couldn't carry them with us."
Sounding like he was on the verge of tears, he added: "This security regime is not from this world. They are killing us. They will destroy us." Another escaping resident told The Independent: "When I left Jisr al-Shughour the troops had not yet arrived. I don't know what's going on."
Details of the killings – which would mark an unprecedented blow to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad – remain thin on the ground. But activists and witnesses said soldiers who had defected were responsible for the deaths of the security men. The number of casualties is unconfirmed. But in a rare admission yesterday, a pro-government newspaper acknowledged that Syrian troops had lost control of large parts of the country's north-west.
Yesterday there were reports that the Syrian army's notorious 4th Division – headed by the President's younger brother, Maher, and previously used to destructive effect in the southern city of Deraa – was heading towards Jisr al-Shughour.
In a reflection of the gravity of the situation, David Cameron yesterday joined France, Germany and Portugal in presenting a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council condemning the Syrian regime – a move that has so far been met with a lukewarm response from Russia and China.
"Today in New York, Britain and France will be tabling a resolution at the Security Council condemning the repression and demanding accountability and humanitarian access," Mr Cameron told Parliament earlier. "And if anyone votes against that resolution or tries to veto it, that should be on their conscience."
The move came as the European Union reportedly prepared to hit the Syrian regime with a new round of sanctions, according to a senior European diplomat who spoke to Reuters.
Last month European leaders rubber-stamped travel bans and asset freezes aimed at the President and other Baathist figures. The United States has imposed its own sanctions.
Mustafa Osso, a human-rights worker, told Reuters that the government was planning a "decisive battle" in Jisr al-Shughour, which used to be a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood and was shelled by the current President's father in 1980.
"The number of soldiers is in the thousands," Mr Osso said. Other witnesses reported seeing troops heading north-west from Homs and Damascus, and said people in the villages around Jisr al-Shughour had opened up their mosques and schools to shelter fleeing civilians.
A human-rights activist from Jisr al-Shughour told The Independent that refugees were congregating on the border near a village called Al-Hassenia. There was no official crossing, but Turkish officials were allowing some people through the border fence one by one, he said."I cannot estimate numbers. They are spread out in the woods and mountains. There is a huge delay letting people through, and it is hot here. There are lots of women, children and old men sitting on the ground. The border is a mess."
About 350 Syrian refugees have now arrived in Turkey. Authorities said that more than 30 were being treated for injuries they suffered during clashes in northern Syria. They also said that one person had died. The Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: "We are monitoring developments in Syria with concern. Syria should change its attitude towards civilians and should take its attitude to a more tolerant level. It is out of the question for Turkey to close its doors to refugees coming from Syria."
The reports of élite troops descending on Syria's north-west will raise fears of yet more bloodshed in an uprising which, according to human-rights groups, has already led to the deaths of more than 1,300 civilians.
Most of the security services and so-called shabiha, or "ghosts", government militiamen are drawn from the same minority Alawite sect as the President. They have been responsible for the vast majority of civilian deaths, but are unlikely to give any quarter to defecting army units who might threaten the Alawite hold on power.
Maher al-Assad: The power behind the crackdown
During his childhood, the youngest of Hafez al-Assad's four sons had a reputation for having a weaker character than his brothers. Now, military might has earned Maher al-Assad a reputation as a ringleader for some of the regime's worst excesses dur- ing the crackdown on weeks of protests that has seen 1,200 people killed and more than 10,000 arrested. He may also hold the key to the regime's survival
As head of the presidential guard, the secret police, and the army's Fourth Mechanical Division, Maher wields enormous power over Syria's government and demoralised military. In the face of army defections and the killings of soldiers and police officers, this power could prove decisive for his older brother's chances of survival.
Maher's relationship with President Assad has been likened to that of their father and his younger brother Rifaat, who orchestrated the Hama massacre in 1982. Such is the cult of fear that exists around him, that many Syrians believe he is the man shown gunning down protesters in a viral online video.