Syrian forces shelled a town in the country's restive north and opened fire on scattered protests nationwide, killing at least 32 people on Friday, activists said. Hundreds of Syrians streamed across the border into Turkey, trying to escape the violence.
A Syrian opposition figure told The Associated Press by telephone that thousands of protesters overwhelmed security officers and torched the courthouse and police station in the northern town of Maaret al-Numan, and the army responded with tank shells. The man spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Syria's state-run television appeared to confirm at least part of the report, saying gunmen opened fire on police stations in Maaret al-Numan, causing casualties among security officials.
Syrian helicopter gunships fired machineguns at protesters in Maaret al-Numan, witnesses told Reuters. It was the first time Syrian forces used air power against anti-government demonstrators.
"At least five helicopters flew over Maarat al-Numaan and began firing their machineguns to disperse the tens of thousands who marched in the protest," one witness told Reuters.
"People hid in fields, under bridges and in their houses, but the firing continued on the mostly empty streets for hours," another witness told Reuters.
The Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents anti-government protests in Syria, said at least 32 people died in protests and army operations, half of them in the northwestern province of Idlib. The group said many of the casualties were in Maaret al-Numan.
Twenty-five miles to the west in the same province, Syrian troops backed by dozens of tanks massed outside the virtually deserted town of Jisr al-Shughour and shelled nearby villages. Late Friday, Syrian television said troops reached the entrances of the town and detained members of "armed groups."
According to activists, many of the troops belong to the army's elite 4th Division, which is commanded by Assad's younger brother, Maher. The use of the loyalist forces could reflect the regime's concern about whether regular military units would remain loyal if called upon to crush the uprising in the north.
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. But the demonstrations in those cities have been relatively limited in scope compared to other restive areas.
Syrians who escaped into Turkey depicted a week of revolt and mayhem in Jisr al-Shughour, saying police turned their guns on each other and soldiers shed their uniforms rather than fire on protesters. Syrian television said the operation aimed to restore security in the town, where authorities say 120 officers and security personnel were killed by gunmen last week.
Nearly 4,000 Syrians had crossed into Turkey by Friday, nearly all of them in the past two days, according to Turkish media.
A Syrian refugee at a camp in Turkey accused Syrian forces of attacking civilians.
"Bashar Assad is killing his own people in order to stay in power," Abdulkerim Haji Yousef told AP Television News, standing behind a fence at one of three camps set up for Syrians.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has used his close ties to Assad in an attempt to press the Syrian leader to make concessions to the protesters, described the crackdown as "savagery." His government has said it will not shut its border to Syrians fleeing violence, and the Turkish military was increasing security along the border to better manage the refugee influx.
"Unfortunately, it is clear that things are not going in the right direction," Turkey's Anatolia news agency cited Turkish President Abdullah Gul as saying. "We are following things with sadness."
Syria's government has a history of violent retaliation against dissent, including a three-week bombing campaign against the city of Hama that crushed an uprising there in 1982. Jisr al-Shughour itself came under government shelling in 1980, with a reported 70 people killed.
Tanks were on the outer edges of Jisr al-Shughour on Friday, preparing to enter, an AP reporter accompanying Syrian troops on a government-organized trip said. He said the army announced the start of operations at around 5 a.m. Friday. Witnesses contacted by telephone said most residents had abandoned the town of up to 45,000.
Citing contacts inside Syria, Rami Abdul-Rahman, the London-based head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said more than 10,000 soldiers were involved.
Syria sharply restricts local media and has expelled foreign reporters, making it virtually impossible to independently verify reports about the uprising. The invitation to an AP reporter to accompany troops to Jisr al-Shughour appeared to reflect a Syrian government effort to counter criticism and prove the existence of armed gangs.
"Now we feel safe," said Walida Sheikho, a 50-year-old woman in the village of Foro, near Jisr al-Shughour.
She and other residents offered food, water and juice to the Syrian troops and said they had appealed for help from the army.
Jisr al-Shughour is a predominantly Sunni town with some Alawite and Christian villages nearby. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
In Sirmaniyeh, a nearby village, journalists with the Syrian military saw a parked army bus, its front windshield smashed by gunfire. The army said the bus was ambushed early Friday, and that driver escaped unhurt after a bullet struck his protective vest.
Journalists were also shown eight grenades on a roadside in Ziara, another village in the area.
State television said armed groups torched crops and wheat fields around Jisr al-Shughour as the army approached.
A man in the town blamed security forces for the crop-burning. He said the few remaining residents were collecting tires to burn in an attempt to try to block the army advance. Speaking by phone, he told an AP reporter in Beirut that about 40 tanks rolled into a village five miles (12 kilometers) from Jisr al-Shughour. He and other activists reported hearing bursts of machine gun fire.
Human rights groups say the crackdown has killed more than 1,300 people, most of them unarmed civilians. The government says a total of 500 security forces have also been killed.
In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross appealed to Syria to grant access to the wounded and people held after clashes with security forces.
Jakob Kellenberger, the ICRC president, said the group hasn't been allowed "meaningful access."
Activists said demonstrators gathered after Friday prayers across Syria, including in northern Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama, Bukamal in the east, and suburbs of Damascus.
Activists said security forces opened fire on protesters near the Sheikh Jaber mosque in the Damascus suburb of Qaboun, killing three people and wounding several others. One activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said there were snipers on rooftops and security checkpoints outside local mosques.
Around 200 people, mostly women and children, staged an anti-Assad protest at the camp in Altinozu, Turkey, one of three set up by the Turkish government.
Interviewed on Turkey's ATV television late Thursday, Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, said some images coming out of Syria were "unpalatable" and suggested Ankara could support a U.N. Security Council decision against Syria.
He criticized Assad's brother, Maher, who is believed to command some troops in the Jisr al-Shughour operation, and is also in charge of the elite Republican Guard, whose job is to protect the government.
"I say this clearly and openly, from a humanitarian point of view, his brother is not behaving in a humane manner. And he is chasing after savagery," Erdogan said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.