After days of relentless shelling and sniper attacks, thousands of Syrian refugees streamed across the border into Turkey with horrific accounts Friday of mass graves, massacres and burned-out homes.
The latest reports of escalating violence fueled accusations that President Bashar Assad is rushing to stamp out as much of the year-old uprising as he can before a U.N.-brokered cease-fire next week.
The trigger for the new waves of refugees was an offensive in Idlib province, which borders Turkey and has become increasingly rebellious against the Assad regime.
Activists reported about 100 dead in the villages of Taftanaz and Killi in recent days.
A photograph provided to the Associated Press by a Syrian activist showed at least a dozen corpses wrapped in blankets in what appeared to be a mass grave in Taftanaz. The AP could not verify the authenticity of the photograph, but witnesses also described a mass grave.
"They destroyed the whole village," a refugee who asked to be identified by only one name, Anas, told the AP on Friday after fleeing Killi. "If he has to kill, Bashar would even kill 1 million people. He doesn't care."
Hikmet Saban, another Syrian refugee who reached Turkey, described the devastation in Taftanaz, located several miles outside the city of Idlib.
"Helicopters and tanks are bombarding continuously," he told Turkey's state-run Anadolu agency. "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 mosque hit by shelling.
The escalating violence has dimmed hopes that the fighting, which the U.N. says has killed more than 9,000 people, will end anytime soon. The country appears to be spiraling toward civil war -- a fearsome development that could bring a regional conflagration.
Assad last week accepted a cease-fire deadline brokered by international envoy Kofi Annan, which calls for his forces to pull out of towns and cities by Tuesday and for everyone to lay down their arms by 6 a.m. local time Thursday.
Western leaders have cast doubt on Assad's intentions, suggesting he is playing for time and is not serious about the plan, which aims to pave the way for talks between the regime and the opposition on a political solution.
Violence also was reported Friday in Syria's central city of Homs, where thick black smoke billowed from a residential area amid the sounds of heavy gunfire and explosions. "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 Rastan, clashing with opposition fighters, the group said.