WADI KHALED, Lebanon -- Using horses and mules to carry their possessions, Syrians crossed a shallow river yesterday to reach safety in Lebanon with tales of devastation back home: sectarian killings, gunmen carrying out execution-style slayings, and the stench of decomposing bodies in the streets.
The accounts are bound together by a sense of growing desperation as President Bashar Assad's regime expands its crackdown on an uprising that has entered a third month with no sign of letting up.
At least 16 people -- eight of them members of the same family -- have been killed in recent days in Talkalakh, a town of about 70,000 residents that has been under siege since Thursday, witnesses and activists say.
The deaths boost an already staggering toll, with more than 850 people killed nationwide since mid-March, according to the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria.
"The situation in the city is catastrophic," said a 55-year-old Syrian who asked to be identified only by his first name, Ahmad. He crossed the border into Lebanon before dawn yesterday.
"If you walk in the streets of Talkalakh you can smell the dead bodies," he said.
As they crossed into Lebanon, residents said their town, which has been the scene of weekly anti-government rallies, came under attack by the army, security forces and shadowy, pro-regime gunmen known as "shabiha."
The siege apparently was meant to head off protests the next day, when Syrians across the country have been massing after Friday prayers since the middle of March. At first, the protesters called for reforms, but now, enraged over the mounting death toll, many are demanding the downfall of the regime.
Assad has blamed the unrest on armed thugs and foreign agitators. He also has played on fears of sectarian strife to persuade people not to demonstrate, saying chaos will result.
Meanwhile, the National Organization for Human Rights said that at least 34 people were killed in five days in the villages of Inkhil and Jassem near the southern city of Daraa. Ammar Qurabi, the head of the human rights group, said five bodies were found yesterday in Daraa, increasing the death toll to 850.
There were also unconfirmed reports that up to 20 bodies were found in a grave there.
Like Talkalakh, Daraa was sealed off in recent weeks as the military sent in troops backed by tanks and snipers to crush the heart of the rebellion. Daraa is the city where the uprising began, touched off by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.
A resident of Inkhil said yesterday more than 70 tanks were in the village and two hospitals in the area had been taken over by security forces.