YAYLADAGI, Turkey - Elite Syrian forces moved swiftly through the country's restive north on Friday, raining tank shells on rebellious towns, torching farmland, and shooting protesters who tried to tear down a poster of President Bashar al-Assad, activists and refugees said.
At least 32 people were killed, activists said, and undaunted protests extended to every major city.
The leader of neighboring Turkey, angered by violence that has sent more than 4,000 Syrians streaming across the border, accused the Assad regime of "savagery."
Backed by helicopters and tanks, the troops responsible for most of Friday's violence were believed to be from an elite division commanded by Assad's younger brother, Maher. The decision to mobilize his unit against the most serious threats to the 40-year Assad regime could be a sign of concern about the loyalty of regular conscripts.
Syrians who escaped from the town of Jisr al-Shoughour into Turkey said the army came after police turned their guns against one other and after soldiers refused orders to fire on protesters last week. Syrian state television has said 120 officers and security personnel were killed by gunmen. A man who remained behind said the few residents left were hoping barricades of burning tires could hold off the reinforcements surrounding them.
To the southeast in the town of Maaret al-Numan, thousands of protesters overwhelmed security officers and torched the courthouse and police station; the army responded with tank shells, a Syrian opposition figure said. Syria's state-run TV appeared to confirm at least part of the report, saying gunmen opened fire on police stations, causing casualties among security officials.
Confirming information out of Syria is difficult. Communications are cut in areas where the uprising is strongest. Syrians who speak openly face retribution from the regime, and foreign journalists have been expelled.
Refugees trying to escape into Turkey, who now number more than 4,000, gave a more detailed picture of the events in the north.
A group of young men who arrived at the Turkish village of Guvecci on Friday said relatives who stayed behind in Syria told them Syrian forces were burning homes and fields in the village of Sirmaniyeh, near Jisr al-Shoughour. One man said a helicopters had fired on a mosque there.
"They are burning down everything there," said a young man who gave his name as Adil. "They said they even killed animals. The people have no weapons; they can't defend themselves. The only thing they can do is escape."
The Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents antigovernment demonstrations in Syria, said 32 people were killed Friday, half of them in Idlib, the province home to Maaret al-Numan and Jisr al-Shoughour. Late Friday, Syrian television said troops reached the entrances of Jisr al-Shoughour and detained members of "armed groups."
Citing contacts inside Syria, Rami Abdul-Rahman, a human-rights observer, said more than 10,000 soldiers were involved. Witnesses contacted by telephone said most residents had abandoned the town of up to 45,000.
Other protests in Syria occurred in neighborhoods in the capital, Damascus, and the major city of Aleppo, which are vital to Assad's authoritarian regime. Demonstrations in those cities have been relatively limited in scope compared with other restive areas.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will keep the frontier open to Syrians fleeing violence, and the Turkish military was increasing border security to better manage the refugee influx. He singled out Assad's brother for criticism. "I say this clearly and openly, from a humanitarian point of view: His brother is not behaving in a humane manner," Erdogan said late Thursday. "And he is chasing after savagery."
Elsewhere In the Region
Libya: Government forces pounded the outskirts of rebel-held Misrata, killing at least
22, a hospital physician said. Moammar Gadhafi's forces used tanks, artillery, and incendiary rockets to bombard Dafniya, 18 miles west of Misrata. At least 61 were wounded. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he had offered Gadhafi guarantees if he were to leave Libya but received no response. He did not detail what sort of guarantees. Norway officials said they would scale down their fighter- jet contribution to NATO from six to four and withdraw completely from the NATO-led operation in Libya by Aug. 1.
Yemen: Nearly 100,000 Yemenis protested in a main square of the capital, demanding the president's ouster in the biggest rally since Ali Abdullah Saleh left for Saudi Arabia last week after being seriously injured in an attack. Saleh's evacuation throws Yemen into a dangerous standoff, with opponents insisting he now be pushed out of power and allies seeking to preserve his rule. Warplanes hit militant positions north of Jaar, causing an undetermined number of casualties.
- Associated Press