Hundreds of residents in Syria's Maarat al-Numan have fled their homes amid fears of a government assault, as the military announced it was preparing for an operation in the northern town.
Major-General Riad Haddad, head of the military's political department, confirmed on Wednesday that army tanks had surrounded the town after military officials said "gunmen" inside were "intimidating people into fleeing the area".
However, the army units have not entered "yet", Haddad said.
Activists said hundreds of residents fled the area to escape the tank forces on the outskirts.
"Cars are continuing to stream out of Maarat al-Numan in all directions," one witness told the Reuters news agency by phone. "People are loading them with everything, blankets, mattresses on roofs."
Haddad said the government feared a repeat of the violence in nearby Jisr al-Shughur, where authorities claimed gunmen killed 120 officers and security personnel last week, prompting troops to storm the town.
As foreign media have been banned from Syria, accounts of the recent events in Jisr al-Shughur cannot be verified.
At least 9,000 Syrian refugees have fled into neighbouring Turkey to escape the violence in Jisr al-Shughur and surrounding areas, as security forces clamp down on an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's one-party rule.
Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, toured one of the refugee camps in the country's Hatay province on Wednesday.
In Ankara, the Turkish capital, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Hassan Turkmani, Assad's envoy, in an apparent effort to again press Syria to initiate reforms. The two did not issue a statement after their talk.
Meanwhile in the Syrian capital, Damascus, thousands of people staged a pro-government demonstration on Wednesday, unfurling a gigantic 2.3km-long Syrian flag along the Mezzeh boulevard.
State television said two million people had joined the demonstration to express "Syrian national unity and Syria's rejection of foreign interference in its internal affairs".
Despite the demonstration, several testimonies have emerged from soldiers who say they have left the Syrian army after being ordered to fire at civilians.
|Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma's Middle East studies unit discusses the Syrian defection claims
A video posted on YouTube this week claimed to show soldiers who had defected in Deir al-Zour celebrating with protesters atop a military vehicle.
But Syrian general Haddad maintained that armed forces were "coherent and carry out all tasks entrusted to them'.'
"There is no split in the Syrian army. It is coherent and has the mandates to end these painful events Syria is passing through,'' he said.
Discussing the reported divisions within the army, Anas al-Abdah, chairman of the opposition group Movement for Justice and Development, told Al Jazeera: "Many defected from the army in order to protect the civilians.
"This happened previously in Deraa and Homs, and now, more evidently, it is happening in Jisr al-Shughur.
"We have strong evidence that indicates that the state security branch in Jisr al-Shughur defected from the main branch in Damascus, and there were severe clashes between the state security and the military intelligence in Jisr."
Al-Abdah said that almost a week ago, military officers began to notice that people from an armed group called Shabiha, which is alleged to be working with the Syrian security forces, had started wearing military uniforms.
"This caused huge resentment within the army because these paramilitary militias were committing atrocities against civilians," he said.
'Executions and torture'
On the diplomatic front, the UN human rights office said on Wednesday that Syrian security forces had repressed pro-democracy protests through executions, mass arrests and torture, citing widespread allegations it has received.
"The most egregious reports concern the use of live ammunition against unarmed civilians, including from snipers positioned on rooftops of public buildings and the deployment of tanks in areas densely populated by civilians," the report said.
The crackdown has sparked international condemnation.
|Pro-government supporters rallied around
a 2.3km long flag in Damascus [AFP]
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan telephoned President Assad, urging him to "refrain from violence and end the unrest", Turkey's Anatolia news agency reported.
Erdogan stressed "it would be useful to draw up a timetable of reforms as soon as possible and urgently implement them," the agency added.
Washington, meanwhile, accused Syria's ally Iran of backing the assaults on pro-democracy protesters and again urged Assad to end the violence.
"Iran is supporting the Assad regime's vicious assaults on peaceful protesters and military actions against its own cities," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
She compared its response to Iran's 2009 crackdown on its own pro-reform protests.
According to a toll released on Tuesday by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the violence in Syria has claimed the lives of 1,297 civilians and 340 security force members in Syria since the unrest erupted in mid-March.