Syrian troops combing through restive villages near the Turkish border set fire to homes and a bakery Sunday, cutting off a lifeline to thousands of uprooted people stranded in miserable open-air encampments.
Activists said the military carried out mass arrests and threw up checkpoints in the village of Bdama and surrounding areas to block residents from fleeing across the frontier, as thousands of others have done.
Turkey, whose leaders have denounced the Damascus regime's deadly crackdown on dissent, began distributing food to those encamped on the Syrian side of the border, in the first such aid mission since the campaign against anti-government protesters turned into a refugee crisis two weeks ago.
People from the Syrian side were collecting food at the border to take to the stranded families, the local Turkish governor's office said.
With the 3-month-old pro-democracy uprising raging on, the Syrian government appeared desperate to put an end to the embarrassing stream of refugees fleeing their homeland. Activists said Syrian authorities at the border were making it more difficult for people to reach Turkey.
As he escaped to this area of Turkey on Sunday, one refugee from Bdama, identifying himself only as Hassan, said he could hear gunfire as he fled.
"Soldiers have blocked roads and many people are walking through fields and mountains," he said.
Clashes erupted almost two weeks ago in Jisr al-Shughour, in the northern province of Idlib, where activists reported loyalist troops fought with army mutineers who refused to take part in the continuing crackdown on protesters seeking President Bashar Assad's ouster.
Government forces retook that town a week ago, and meanwhile more than 10,500 Syrians fled and are being sheltered in four Turkish refugee camps. An estimated 5,000 others are camped out on the Syrian side of the border, with dwindling resources, trying to remain close to their homes and relatives, avoiding official refugee status that might delay their return.
The Syrian government has called on the displaced people to return, promising safety. But most are staying put as long as the army is occupying their towns, fearing arrest upon return.
Assad was expected to give a speech Monday in what would be only his third public appearance since the uprising began in mid-March, inspired by the revolutions sweeping the Arab world. Turkey, U.N. and Western leaders and others who have urged change in Syria will watch to see whether he shows any sign of bending toward demands for an easing of the Assad family's 40-year authoritarian rule.
Residents of Bdama, a village 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the Turkish border, said tank-borne troops firing machine guns were tightening their grip on Bdama, the nearby village of Rihan and surrounding areas, which had been a gateway for refugees and for their food and medical supplies, dissident sources reported.
In Bdama, several homes were set ablaze in what appeared to be revenge attacks, human rights activist Ammar Qurabi said. A man at the Bdama bakery was shot in the stomach and leg as the place was torched by troops, and he was evacuated to Turkey for treatment Sunday morning, said an activist near the border, Jamil Saeb.
The bakery was said to have been the sole source of bread for thousands stuck on the Syrian side of the frontier.
"Security forces have arrested around 100 people from those villages in the past few days. They are trying to close off border areas with checkpoints to keep people from leaving," said Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso, who expressed concern that the thousands encamped on the Syrian side might come under attack.
The anti-government activists' reports about the continuing crackdown could not be independently verified.
Syria's state-run news agency, SANA, reported Sunday that the military dismantled mines and highly explosive booby traps planted by "armed terrorist groups" along roads and bridges leading to Jisr al-Shughour.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said its president, Jakob Kellenberger, was flying to Syria on Sunday to discuss the humanitarian situation with Prime Minister Adel Safar and Foreign Minister Walid Muallem. Kellenberger has repeatedly urged Syria to allow the ICRC and the Syrian Red Crescent access to the wounded and detained in the crackdown.
The opposition estimates more than 1,400 Syrians have been killed and 10,000 detained as Assad's forces try to preserve his grip on power.
The pro-democracy uprising against the Assad regime has proved remarkably resilient despite the relentless campaign by the military, other security forces and pro-regime gunmen. The government has unleashed troops on mass protests in region after region over the three months, including last Friday, when activists said at least 16 civilians were killed when security forces fired on demonstrators in several cities and towns.
Karam reported from Beirut.
Zeina Karam can be reached at http://twitter.com/zkaram