Syrian forces have shelled a town in the country’s restive north and opened fire on scattered protests nationwide, killing at least 21 people, activists said.
Hundreds of Syrians streamed across the border into Turkey, trying to escape the violence.
A Syrian opposition figure told the Associated Press over the phone 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.
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.
The Local Co-ordination Committees, a group that documents anti-government protests in Syria, said 10 of the 21 deaths were in the north-western 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 today, 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 President Bashar 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 neighbourhoods in the capital, Damascus, and the major city of Aleppo, which are vital to President 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 today, 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 President 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.
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 today, preparing to enter, an AP reporter accompanying Syrian troops on a government-organised trip said. He said the army announced the start of operations at around 5am. Witnesses contacted by telephone said most residents had abandoned the town of up to 45,000.
Syria sharply restricts local media and has expelled foreign reporters, making it virtually impossible to independently verify reports about the uprising.
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.