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A Syrian boy at a refugee camp in Turkey, which is now hosting almost 24,000 Syrians who have fled the violence. Photograph: Tolga Bozoglu/EPA
Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, called the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, at 2am on Friday to discuss the unprecedented exodus and humanitarian situation. More than 2,800 Syrians poured into the country on Thursday, more than double the highest previous one-day total.
The refugees were fleeing heavy shelling by the Syrian army of villages in the north-western province of Idlib. They crossed near the Turkish village of Bukulmez, officials said, and were waiting on the other side. Forty-four minibuses took the arrivals to a refugee camp at Reyhani. Others were still trying to cross, officials added.
"The army is destroying buildings and bombing them 'til they turn to charcoal," Mohammed Khatib, a refugee who said he came from Kastanaz, a Syrian town of 20,000 people, told Reuters. "The army wants people to move out of their houses. If the residents refuse, they destroy them with the people inside." There were reports of a mass grave nearby after days of shelling and strafing by regime helicopters.
Davutoglu reportedly urged Ban to send officials to evaluate the situation. Witnesses reported that the army was using helicopters in attacks along the border.
The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey has reached 23,835, according to figures from Ankara.
The exodus casts doubt on whether the latest peace plan by Kofi Annan, the UN-Arab League envoy, has any chance of success. The regime has accepted a deadline of Tuesday to withdraw its forces from rebel areas, and has agreed to allow in humanitarian aid to reach Syrians, almost 10,000 of whom have died since the uprising began in mid-March 2011.
Few analysts are hopeful that the plan can work, even though Russia and China, who have vetoed previous UN resolutions aimed at ending the bloodshed, support it. Events on Friday showed violence raging in many parts of the country.
Activists reported tank fire in at least three urban centres – the town of Douma near Damascus; the city of Homs; and Rastan, north of Homs. Damascus residents claimed via Twitter that security forces had opened fire on a demonstration in the central Midan area, one of dozens of Friday protests being held in the capital and around the country.
Opposition activists claimed at least 23 people were killed on Friday, mostly in Homs. One Tweeter wrote: "Insane shelling in Homs. Rockets and mortars being launched every 30 seconds from the military collage at most areas of Homs."
In Douma, one activist said, tanks had entered at night, left, then returned at 7am. "There has been shelling on Douma since the morning," he told Reuters. "We are not sure if people were killed but the shelling did not stop. At least five tanks and 10 buses loaded with security men and Shabiha (pro-Assad militia) entered Douma."
Earlier Annan told the UN general assembly by video link from Geneva that the Syrian authorities had assured him this week that troop withdrawals were under way. The pullout was taking place in the towns of Deraa, Idlib and Zabadani, the regime insisted. But he said he wanted "fuller information".
Western powers are sceptical Syria's embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, will honour the promised truce and believe he may seek loopholes giving him more time to decapitate the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and deter protesters. It is also uncertain whether the FSA has enough control over its fighters to enforce Annan's ceasefire deadline.
Syria's UN ambassador, Bashar Ja'afari, said the plan did not require any pullback of police — who have played a big role in the conflict as suggested by the state's own casualty toll. Last year, the opposition said troops had disguised themselves as police and repainted army vehicles in police colours before the arrival in December of Arab observers sent to monitor what proved to be an abortive Arab League peace.