Forces of the Syrian regime are reported to have attacked and occupied villages near the Turkish border, just 3km from encampments where 12,000 refugees have fled to escape President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown.

Troops supported by tanks and artillery moved into the area as other units closed the circle around Maarat al-Numan, an opposition town in the north. Human rights groups said that at least 300 people had been arrested in a sweep of surrounding villages.

Families fleeing to the frontier with Turkey said the villages of Cenudi, Sigir, Badama and Qalaat Al-Shighour had been damaged by shellfire at dawn, which preceded the arrival of troops, secret police and the feared Shabbia militia. Local people blame the Mukhabarat secret police and the Shabbia militia - which is drawn from the Alawaite community, to which President Assad and many of the Syrian elite belong - for carrying out the worst excesses in the ferocious punitive response to the three-month uprising.

"They've really tried to destroy the village," said Somar Ali, a 20-year-old farmer who had fled Badama. "Most of my family came out with me, but my grandfather said 'I am too old to run away, I'll die here'. We phoned to make sure he was all right and we could hear shooting in the background. He said they were burning the fields and pulling down houses."

About 12,000 people are living in squalid temporary shelters on the Syrian side of the frontier, while a further 8500 have made it to Turkey. Amid the chaos of the refugee encampments, accounts of what is unfolding on the ground are often confused and contradictory. The outskirts of Badama, seen by a visitor, did not support the claims of widespread destruction. Most of the population had fled, doors and windows of houses were shuttered, but the scale of damage was limited.

There is, nevertheless, fear among the refugees that regime forces would hunt them down. Groups seeking a way out to the relative safety of Turkey have come under sniper fire. Mukhabarat gunmen in civilian cars are said to have carried out ambushes.

Nasr al-Baidi, a farmer from Sigir, said: "We did not think the [regime's] troops would move so near to the border. Everyone is now very worried that they will move to the camps and start arresting people, maybe even killing them. What would the Turks do? They cannot allow a massacre to take place."

Reports of violence have heightened the sense of trepidation. A woman was alleged to have been gang raped by soldiers at Jisr Al-Shughour, a town stormed by regime forces earlier this week. Three women were reportedly paraded naked at the same place.

Ibrahim, who did not want his surname published, said: "The poor woman who was raped was married and had children. She telephoned my wife and told her what had happened and told her not to go home. What happened to her and the three other women was a punishment because their husbands had joined demonstrations."

Thousands of people from Maarat al-Numan, east of Jisr Al-Shughour, have left the town and are reportedly heading for the border. A Maarshamsa villager said indiscriminate shooting by Damascus forces killed one man, who had to be buried in his garden because intense attacks made it impossible to take his body to the cemetery.

Yaquub Abdurrahman, moving his wife and six children from Maarat al-Numan, said: "We have been told an attack is coming and we do not want to wait around to see what happens. We do not want to leave Syria and we will return when the fighting finishes."

The regime, which insists the violence is down to ill-defined "terrorist gangs", has asked refugees to return home. Hassan Turkmani, a special envoy of the Syrian president in Ankara for talks with the Turkish Government, stated the refugees would only stay in Turkey for a "short period of time". "Soon they will be returning," he said. "We've prepared everything for them."

But at Guvecci, a Turkish town on the Syrian border, people were fearful of what awaited them. "We have heard that names of people who have gone back are checked against a list. If a name comes up the person is dragged away. There is a very good reason for not going back, we will get killed," said Abdel Yusuf Mohammed, who had fled from Jisr al-Shighour.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who visited a refugee camp in Hatay province adjoining Syria, met Turkmani yesterday.

Afterwards he said the countries remained the "closest friends" but added "We want a strong, stable, prosperous Syria. To achieve this, the violence must stop immediately. I clearly saw the fear in the eyes of people in the place I visited."

On the border
in shelters on the Syrian side

refugees are on the Turkish side