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 Assad, activists and refugees said.
At least 32 people were killed, activists said, and undaunted protests extended to major cities.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, angered by violence that has sent 4,000 Syrians streaming across the border into Turkey, 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.
The main target appeared to be the town of Jisr al-Shughour, a border town of up to 45,000 people where Syrian state television reported this week that 120 officers and security personnel were killed by gunmen opposed to Assad's rule.
Syrians who escaped from Jisr al-Shughour into Turkey said the army arrived after police turned their guns on each other and soldiers refused orders to fire on protesters last week.
On Friday, a man in Jisr al-Shughour told the Associated Press that the few residents still in the town were hoping barricades of burning tires could hold off the reinforcements surrounding them.
Twenty-five miles to the southeast in the town of Maaret al-Numan, thousands of protesters overwhelmed security officers and torched the courthouse and police station, and the army responded with tank shells, a Syrian opposition figure told the AP by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
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.
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.
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 in Turkey 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 told them Syrian forces were burning homes and fields in the village of Sirmaniyeh, near Jisr al-Shughour. One of the men, who gave his name as Adil, said helicopters had fired on a mosque there.
As he spoke another Syrian got a call telling him his cousin had died in Latakia, where activists said security forces fired on protesters who tried to tear down a giant poster of Assad, killing seven. The young man whose phone rang slumped and wept.
The Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents antigovernment protests in Syria, said 32 people were killed on Friday, half of them in Idlib, the province home to Maaret al-Numan and Jisr al-Shughour. Late Friday, Syrian television said troops reached the entrances of Jisr al-Shughour and detained members of "armed groups."
Fears of a civil war in Syria have deterred world powers from calling for Bashar Assad's ouster. But with Syrian human rights groups saying the death toll has climbed past 1,200, the international community is preparing to toughen its response.
Britain, France, Germany and Portugal are pushing a U.N. Security Council resolution that would condemn the repression and call for humanitarian access to Syrians afflicted by the violence. But Russia has said that it will not support the resolution.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report.