Syrian troops fought pitched battles Friday with protesters as the army intensified a crackdown on an anti-government uprising, killing at least 32 people in the shelling of a northern border town and attacks on demonstrators.
Many of the deaths occurred when tanks opened fire on Maaret al-Numan, a town in northern Idlib province near the Turkish border, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents anti-government protests in Syria.
Syria's state-run TV said gunmen attacked security forces in Maaret al-Numan, but an opposition activist interviewed by The Associated Press said thousands of protesters overwhelmed the troops and torched the courthouse and police station in the town. The army responded by lobbing tank shells into the city, according to the activist, who asked not to be identified. Neither the activist's report nor the one from state media could be independently verified.
The move by government forces was aimed at crushing an 11-week uprising against President Bashar al-Assad — the biggest challenge to his family's autocratic rule in more than four decades.
Twenty-five miles west of Maaret al-Numan, tanks stood on the outskirts of the nearly deserted city of Jisr al-Shughour on Friday, said an AP reporter accompanying Syrian troops on a government-organized trip.
The invitation to members of the media 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," Walida Sheikho, a 50-year-old woman in the village of Foro, near Jisr al-Shughour, told The Associated Press.
She and other residents offered food, water and juice to the Syrian troops and said they had appealed for help from the army.
Syrian television said the army mobilized after appeals from residents who said they were terrorized by the groups. The government has often blamed violence on gunmen and Islamic extremists, though there have been widespread accounts of security forces firing on unarmed protesters.
State TV also said armed groups set fire to crops and fields of wheat in areas surrounding Jisr al-Shughour as the army approached.
But a man in the town blamed government security forces for the crop-burning. He said the few remaining residents were collecting car and truck tires to set them on fire to try to block the army's advance. He told the AP that a military helicopter had flown over the area Thursday night, firing flares on a possible reconnaissance mission.
Most of Jisr al-Shughour's 45,000 residents fled after an uprising earlier in the week that killed members of the 120 security force and prompted the government to vow retaliation. Some residents said Syrian police had turned their guns on one another and that soldiers shed their uniforms rather than obey orders to fire on protesters.
A 21-year-old Syrian policeman, who identified himself as Ahmed Gavi, told a Turkish newspaper that he saw five officers killed on the spot when they refused orders to shoot unarmed protesters. He said he escaped across the border with 60 other officers.
Gavi said so many officers died because a firefight broke out among the more than 200 policemen ordered to carry out an operation against the protesters. His account could not be independently verified, but other refugees have given similar descriptions.
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 in the military action in Jisr al-Shughour.
More than 3,000 Syrians have crossed the border into neighboring Turkey to flee the violence, most in the past several days. Activists said at least six people were killed in cities across Syria when crowds gathered for renewed protests after Friday prayers.
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 Yousef told the AP.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has said his government will not shut its border, described the Syrian crackdown as "savagery."
Meanwhile, activists said demonstrators gathered after Friday prayers across Syria, including in the northern city of Aleppo, the central cities of Homs and Hama, Bukamal in the east, and suburbs of Damascus.
They 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.
The military operations are part of a crackdown on the three-month-old uprising against Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have died in the unrest, most of them unarmed civilians. A government spokeswoman has countered that a total of 500 security forces have been killed since the rebellion began.
Interviewed on Turkey's ATV television late Thursday, Erdogan said some images coming out of Syria were "unpalatable" and suggested that his government could support a U.N. Security Council decision against Syria.
The Turkish premier harshly criticized Assad's younger brother, Maher, who is believed to be in command of some portion of the Jisr al-Shughour operation. Maher Assad is also in charge of the elite Republican Guard, whose job is to protect the government.
The comments reflected Ankara's frustration with Syria after weeks of attempts by Turkish officials to coax Syrian authorities into implementing democratic reforms.
Officials said the Turkish Red Crescent was setting up two new camps near the border, in addition to the one where refugees have already been placed.
NPR's Deborah Amos reported from Beirut, Lebanon, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.