BEIRUT, Lebanon — Elite Syrian troops backed by helicopters and tanks regained control Sunday of a town where police and soldiers joined forces with the protesters they were ordered to shoot — a decisive assault from a government prepared for an all-out battle to keep power.
Troops led by President Bashar Assad's brother shelled Jisr al-Shughour as the gunships hovered overhead, paving the way for scores of tanks and armored personnel carriers to roll in from two directions. By early afternoon, the sounds of battle faded. The army was in control.
Sunday's developments, and actions by opponents of the Syrian government, marked a major departure from what had been a largely peaceful protest movement. Among them: the discovery of a mass grave filled with uniformed bodies and the increasing willingness of mutineers and outgunned residents to fight back.
Assad has stopped offering concessions to demonstrators, relying wholly on the use of force to stamp out a widespread challenge to his grip on power. His response in Jisr al-Shughour, the first town to spin out of government control since the uprising began in mid March, mirrored his father's 1980 assault there. It was a clear message to anyone contemplating defiance.
Syrians who were among thousands to flee for the nearby Turkish border said about 60 mutineers were defending the town alongside 200 unarmed residents. Their fate was unknown late Sunday, but the government reported three deaths in the fighting — one of its own soldiers and two unidentified men whose bodies were shown to reporters.
"The Syrian army is fighting itself," said Muhieddine Lathkani, a London-based Syrian writer and intellectual. "The army's response was strong because they did not want the mutiny to become larger."
Neighboring Turkey, about 12 miles away, has given sanctuary to more than 5,000 fleeing Syrians, nearly all of them in the past few days from Idlib province. Turkey's prime minister has accused the Assad regime of "savagery."
Arab governments, which were unusually supportive of NATO intervention in Libya, have been silent in the face of Syria's crackdown, fearing that the alternative to Assad would be chaos. The country has an explosive sectarian mix and is seen as a regional powerhouse with influence on events in neighboring Israel, Lebanon and Iraq.
Fridays in Syria have become a familiar cycle of protest and government crackdown, one that appeared likely to continue on June 3 in Jisr al-Shughour and elsewhere. Instead, residents say, on that day police and soldiers turned on their commanders, and control of the town slipped out of government hands.
More than 120 members of the country's security forces were killed by what state television called "armed gangs."
Troops on Sunday removed 10 uniformed bodies from a mass grave in front of the military police building. At least four of the bodies were beheaded or struck on the head with an ax, according to an Associated Press reporter who was invited to accompany the Syrian forces. The building was burned and there were bloodstains in some rooms, which bolstered the reports of the mutiny.
Elite forces led by Assad's younger brother, Maher, were ordered to the northern province of Idlib, a possible sign that the military no longer fully trusted its conscripts. The government, which has expelled foreign journalists and keeps tight control over information, unexpectedly invited a few reporters to join the unit, including one from the AP.
"The situation is very bad," said Abdu, a Syrian who sneaked into the Turkish village of Guvecci, where he came to get bread for his family who had fled and were camped just inside Syria. "We want democracy, we want freedom. We are not afraid of anything anymore."
But he would not give his full name. Syrians who speak against the government face retribution and arrest, and few who express antigovernment views allow themselves to be identified.
Syria's government has said 500 members of the security forces have died in the violence. More than 1,400 Syrians have died and about 10,000 have been detained in the government crackdown since mid March, activists say.
The government's ability to crush the opposition at Jisr al-Shughour may prove a limited victory. In military terms, it was an uneven battle against a far weaker opponent. But the political repercussions are still uncertain, analysts said.
While the goal may have been to frighten other potentially restive communities into obedience, the government has been confronted with a problem of its own: Turkey has allowed thousands of residents to flee, giving a public face to an uprising that has otherwise been cloaked behind state censorship and repression.
The result has been growing international condemnation, including from Turkey, and the U.N. secretary-general, who has called for an end to the violence.
"The Turks have opened their borders, they're receiving, and they're allowing people to stand in front of cameras and tell what's going on," said Amr al-Azm, a Syrian historian at Shawnee State University in Ohio who recently attended an opposition conference in Turkey. "Jisr al-Shughour is important because it's a border region, and it's especially important because the Turkish government cannot be relied on to cooperate with the Syrian regime."
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.