DAMASCUS - The Syrian army intensified attacks on rebellious areas on Thursday, March 15, as the country marked the first anniversary of an increasingly revolt against President Bashar Al-Assad's rule.
"The army is intensifying its attack on rebellious villages and firing on areas trying to hold (anti-Assad) protests," a resident of the northwestern city of Idlib told Reuters on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
At least five people were killed in army attacks on Thursday across Idlib, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
Violent clashes were also reported after opposition fighters attacked army posts in the eastern region of Deir Ezzor.
The monitoring group also said 23 bodies had been found dumped in a rural area near the city.
Some of the dead showed signs of torture and they had been blindfolded and handcuffed.
The discovery came after the Syrian army launched a military operation in the city to stop anti-regime protests.
Official media said that government forces had cleared "armed terrorists" from the city.
"Security and peace of mind returned to the city of Idlib after authorities cleared its neighborhoods of armed terrorist groups which had terrorized citizens," the state news agency Sana reported on Thursday.
The announcement came as Syria marked the first anniversary of a revolt against Assad's 11-year rule, which left more than 8,000 killed.
Syrian authorities say they are fighting terrorists, who have killed 2,000 soldiers and police.
Condemning what they say a conspiracy against Syria, thousands of flag-waving people took to the streets across Syria to show support to Assad.
State television showed thousands of people in central Damascus, waving portraits of Assad and flags of Syria, Russia and China, who have not joined Western nations in backing an Arab League plan for Assad to step aside.
"We sacrifice our blood and souls to you, Bashar," the crowds chanted as three helicopters flew past in a military salute.
Television videoed rallies in numerous cities, including Deraa near the border with Jordan, which was the epicenter of the original protest movement last year but has been filled with security forces backed by tanks in the past 24 hours.
Critics said the government had bused in state employees to the demonstrations and had made participation obligatory.
There were no images from three cities where some of the worst violence has occurred in the past year, Homs, Idlib and Hama, and locals reported sporadic clashes in several places.
The first anniversary comes as more Syrians have fled their country to flee the bloody crackdown by Assad's forces.
"They are firing on women and children. The tanks have entered the city and opening fire on the shops," a 22-year-old man who had just arrived from Idlib and described himself as a fighter in the rebel Free Syrian Army, told Reuters.
"They are seizing the doctors so they cannot treat the wounded."
The man said that army troops were taking women and children as human shields.
"The (government) soldiers are taking the women and children and lining them up in front of them as a human shield. They are setting the shops and homes on fire.
"The FSA has had to withdraw from Idlib for now because they are using women and children," he said.
On Monday, activists said 57 people, including 26 children and 21 women, were killed by Assad's forces in Syria's third largest city Homs.
Activists said some of those killed had their throats slit and others bearing stab wounds in the Karm al-Zeitoun and Al Adawiyeh neighborhoods of the besieged city.
Syrian authorities accused terrorist gangs of being behind the killings with the aim of sparking an international outcry against Damascus.
"There is no food or water there now. No electricity, nothing ... I will go back and fight as soon as I get my weapon and ammunition," said the man.
Turkish officials say the number of Syrians fleeing into Turkey has sharply increased over the ongoing military operations.
"There has been an increase in those fleeing from Syria to our country," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal told a news conference.
"Yesterday, the number of people who had come was 13,700. This morning, the number is 14,700.
"This shows the seriousness of the situation in Syria."
Among those who had fled was a general, the seventh top ranking Syrian officer to have defected to Turkey, Unal said.
Turkish officials estimated there were some 200 to 300 Syrians crossing daily into Turkey last week, itself a sharp increase on the numbers in previous weeks.
UN estimates that 30,000 Syrians have fled their country over Assad's crackdown on anti-regime protests.
Turkey long courted Assad as part of its push for influence in the Middle East, but ditched its ally last year after the government's violent suppression of protests.The Turkish government is now at the forefront of efforts to pressure Assad into stepping down or agree a negotiated end to the conflict.