Syrian security forces pursuing anti-government protesters have surrounded a central town that has become a hotbed of dissent against President Bashar Assad's regime, sending residents fleeing, activists said Monday.
The prime minister of Turkey, a former close ally, warned Assad that his regime could face a demise like those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya if the violent suppression of protests does not stop.
Syria has come under blistering international condemnation for its deadly crackdown on anti-government protests that began in March, and U.S. and European leaders have demanded Assad step down.
But the comments from Turkey were some of the bluntest warnings yet and were particularly biting because they came from a leader whose government had extensive diplomatic ties with Syria.
"The only way out is to immediately silence arms and to listen to the people's demands," said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, speaking in his monthly address aired on Turkish TV late Sunday. "We have been watching the fate of those who did not chose this path in the past few months in Tunisia, in Egypt -- and now in Libya -- as a warning and with sadness."
"Demands for democracy and freedom are the people's just demands. In today's world, there is no place for one-man rule, for autocratic regimes and closed communities," he said.
In the central town of Rastan, heavy machine gun fire by the security forces and the army was reported at its southern entrance.
The Local Coordination Committees activist network said the heavy deployment around Rastan, which started early Monday, sent residents fleeing out of fear the town would be stormed.
Rastan, on the main highway to Turkey, has been the site of intense anti-regime protests.
The operations there are part of the regime's deadly crackdown on anti-government protests. Human rights groups say more than 2,000 people have been killed since the start of the uprising in March.
Rights groups said three people were killed overnight in the eastern town of al-Boukamal near the border with Iraq. Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the three were killed during raids by security forces in pursuit of activists in the town.
Sporadic gunfire and shootings were also reported in various parts of the country.