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Syria steps up offensives ahead of cease-fire

BEIRUT — Syrian troops shelled restive cities and villages and sent tanks and snipers into battle against rebels in the capital's suburbs on Friday, broadening a government offensive that appeared aimed at crushing pockets of opposition less than a week before an internationally sponsored cease-fire is to take hold, activists said.

With fighting escalating, the stream of Syrians fleeing to neighboring Turkey has picked up considerably, as about one-third of the total of 24,000 refugees arrived in the past two weeks, Turkish officials said. Some 2,500 crossed the border on Thursday alone, said Ankara's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

He told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday his country would seek U.N. assistance if the influx continues. Turkey has in the past floated the idea of creating a small buffer zone inside Syria if refugee flows become overwhelming.

"These developments are seriously worrying us," Davutoglu said of the intensifying violence.

The apparent trigger for the latest rush of refugees was an offensive by President Bashar Assad's forces this week near the town of Idlib, close to Turkey. Activists reported scores dead in the village of Taftanaz, and said another village nearby, Killi, was being shelled Friday.

"They devastated Taftanaz, all houses demolished, everything destroyed," Hikmet Saban, a Syrian refugee who reached Turkey, told Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency. "Helicopters and tanks are bombarding continuously. Taftanaz has been burnt to the ground for three days." Activists posted video they said showed a helicopter gunship firing a missile at Taftanaz and a local mosque hit by shelling.

Dozens of refugees, including a young man on crutches and a defector from the Syrian army in military camouflage, were huddled behind razor wire on the Syria-Turkey border Friday, waiting to cross into Turkey, according to footage shown on Turkey's state TV. Turkish soldiers registered their names before letting them in.

In Syria's central city of Homs, thick black smoke billowed from a residential area as the sounds of heavy gunfire and explosions could be heard. "Intense shelling by Assad's gangs," a man could be heard saying while filming what appeared to be a house on fire. "May God help us."

Regime forces also struck the town of Rastan, just north of Homs, with heavy machine-guns and mortars, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Ground troops later tried to push their way into the city, clashing with opposition fighters, the group said.

The government has been laying siege to Rastan since rebels took control of it in late January. Rebels are in control of Rastan town — but not the strategic Rastan bridge, which is the main link to the country's north. Over the past year, the rebels have tried repeatedly to overrun the bridge and break the siege.

Government forces also broadened an offensive in the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Saqba, Arbeen and Dumair, exchanging fire with rebels, activists said. The Observatory said four members of the military were killed.

Tanks patrolled deserted streets in the sprawling Douma district, about 8 miles (12 kilometers) outside Damascus, said activist Mohammed Saeed. Snipers set up positions atop a 12-story medical building.

Troops had entered Douma on Thursday in what activists described as one of the most violent raids near the capital since the uprising against Assad began more than a year ago.

Plumes of smoke rose above Saqba, and activists said regime forces torched at least one house. In Dumair, the Observatory reported intense fighting and said an armored vehicle was destroyed.

Also Friday, tens of thousands of protesters marched in towns across Syria, calling for the ouster of the Assad regime and for putting on trial those involved in the crackdown on the uprising, the Observatory said. Such marches are common after Friday prayers. In the central province of Hama, troops opened fire on demonstrators, wounding three people, the group said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned Thursday that the Syria crisis is getting worse, even as a cease-fire is to take hold by 6 a.m. on Thursday. The truce deal was brokered by Kofi Annan, the special U.N. and Arab League envoy to Syria.

"Cities, towns and villages have been turned into war zones. The sources of violence are proliferating," Ban told the U.N. General Assembly. "The human rights of the Syrian people continue to be violated. ... Humanitarian needs are growing dramatically."

The escalating violence has dimmed hopes that a year of fighting, which the U.N. says has claimed more than 9,000 lives, will end soon.

Assad last week accepted the truce deal, which calls for his forces to pull out of towns and cities by Tuesday. However, Western leaders have cast doubt on his intentions, suggesting he is playing for time and is not serious about the Annan plan, which aims to pave the way for talks between the regime and the opposition on a political solution.

The Syrian government has portrayed the anti-regime protests as a foreign-led conspiracy, denying that it is driven by widespread discontent with four decades of rule by the Assad family. On Friday, the Syrian government sent letters to the United Nations and U.N. Security Council "regarding crimes being committed by terrorists," the state-run news agency SANA reported.

Also Friday, a small UN advance team headed by a Norwegian major general, Robert Mood, was to meet with Syria's deputy foreign minister to discuss the cease-fire plans. Mood is to set up a UN monitoring force with 200 to 250 members if the peace plan succeeds.

Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross has been able to dispatch a convoy with aid supplies for 2,000 displaced families to Tartous, one of the areas of fighting in Syria, said Annan's spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi.

AP Writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.