Syrian troops backed by dozens of tanks have massed outside a virtually deserted town near the Turkish border, preparing to move in against protesters.
Across the country, crowds undaunted by the crackdown in Jisr al-Shughour and elsewhere began to gather for renewed protests after prayers.
Activists said security forces shot and killed two people at a protest in the southern province of Daraa, and one person at a demonstration in suburban Damascus, the capital.
Thousands of residents who have fled into Turkey have depicted a week of revolt and mayhem in Jisr al-Shughour, saying Syrian police turned their guns on each other and soldiers shed their uniforms rather than fire on protesters.
Syrian state television said the operation aims to restore security in the town, where authorities say 120 officers and security personnel were killed by “armed groups” last week.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has used his close ties to Assad to press the Syrian leader to make concessions to the protesters, described the crackdown as “savagery.” His government has said it will not shut its border to Syrians fleeing violence.
Tanks were on the outer edges of Jisr al-Shughour, preparing to enter, an AP reporter accompanying Syrian troops on a government-organised trip said.
Witnesses contacted by telephone said most residents had abandoned the town of up to 45,000.
Citing contacts inside Syria, Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said more than 10,000 soldiers, including elite units, were involved. Helicopters ferried some troops to the area, he said.
The Associated Press reached residents in the area by telephone today, but the lines appeared to be cut later in the day as troops moved through towns and villages surrounding Jisr al-Shughour.
Syria sharply restricts local media and has expelled foreign reporters, making it virtually impossible to independently verify reports about the uprising.
The military was securing areas on the way to Jisr al-Shughour before bringing in a group of journalists to talk to residents.
Jisr al-Shughour is a predominantly Sunni town with some Alawite and Christian villages nearby.
Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but President Bashar Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Syrian television said the operation to “liberate” the town from “armed gangs” came in response to the appeals of residents who were terrorised by the groups. The government has often blamed violence on gunmen and Islamic extremists, though there are widespread accounts of security forces firing on unarmed protesters.
Reports of an imminent operation by the military prompted an exodus of refugees to Turkey, who gave some vivid accounts of the mutiny and crackdown. About 2,800 Syrian refugees have crossed into Turkey since the nationwide uprising against Assad began three months ago, with most fleeing in the last two days.
State television said armed groups torched crops and wheat fields around Jisr al-Shughour as the army approached.
But a man in the town blamed security forces for the crop-burning. He said the few remaining residents were collecting tyres to burn in an attempt to try to block the advance of the army.