Under the rattle of heavy gunfire and loud explosions, Syrian troops on Sunday regained control of a restive northwestern town, clashing with mutinous soldiers whose decision to side with armed protesters posed a potent threat to the authoritarian regime.
Backed by helicopters and tanks, army units moved in after dismantling explosives planted on roads and bridges leading to Jisr al-Shughour, Syria's state-run news agency SANA said, reporting "heavy" clashes.
Residents who fled to Turkey said thousands of young men, including soldiers and police who switched sides and joined the revolt against President Bashar Assad, had armed themselves and planted dynamite at the town entrances.
A resident who fled on Sunday said the army shelled Jisr al-Shughour, then tanks and other heavy armor rolled in from two directions.
As the troops advanced, he said, they fought about 60 army defectors, whose fate was unknown. He said about 200 unarmed men who were guarding the town are believed to have been either killed or detained.
The witness, who fled to an area near the Turkish border, did not give his name for fear of government reprisals.
After gaining control of the town, Syrian troops showed reporters four bodies, some still in uniform, that were beheaded or struck on the head with an ax. The city's military police building was burned and there were bloodstains in some rooms, which bolstered the reports of a mutiny.
Assad has made some concessions, but thousands of people demonstrating against his rule — inspired by protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere — say they will not stop until he leaves power.
The mutiny in Idlib province, and the apparent willingness of some outgunned residents to stay behind and fight, was a major departure from what had been a largely peaceful protest movement.
The Syrian government has said the town had been under the control of "armed men" who it said killed 120 police officers last week. State TV alleged armed groups in the area carried out a "massacre."
The Local Coordination Committees, a network that documents Syrian anti-government protests, said Jisr al-Shughour was attacked from the south and east by troops in about 200 vehicles, including tanks. It said blasts were heard as helicopters clattered overhead.
Sanctuary in Turkey
The region near Turkey's border is posing the biggest challenge yet to Assad's struggle to crush the revolt calling for an end to his family's 40-year regime. Thousands of Syrians in the region have crossed into Turkey in recent days, taking sanctuary in refugee camps.
"Almost all but the young man have fled either to other towns or villages in Syria or to Turkey," said a Syrian teen, who identified himself as Aziz and was across the border in Turkey. "Only the young remained behind and have armed themselves with AK-47 Kalashnikovs, G-3 rifles or hand guns."
Aziz, an 18-year-old who spoke to The Associated Press late Saturday, said his family pulled him out of school on Wednesday and they crossed into Turkey.
Syrian forces told an Associated Press reporter invited to travel with them to Jisr al-Shughour that they were arresting "gunmen" in the largely evacuated city, normally home to about 40,000 people. State television reported one soldier had died and four were wounded in Sunday's attack.
In Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday, government soldiers took the AP reporter to the National Hospital where they saw at least two dead bodies. The hospital was damaged, many of its windows shattered. A burned ambulance was parked outside.
Residents who emerged from their homes Sunday said they were suffering before the troops came. They spoke in the presence of military officers and government officials accompanying the journalists, and it was not clear whether they expressed their views freely. Syrians who speak against the government face retribution and arrest — activists say some 10,000 people have been detained in the 12-week revolt against the regime.
"Gunmen were intimidating us. They told us 'the army is coming to kill you and you have to flee the area,'" said Zeina Salloum, 37, after coming out of her home to welcome advancing troops.
Witnesses said more than 4,000 Syrians have crossed into Turkey and up to 10,000 had taken shelter among trees near the border since forces commanded by Assad's brother Maher sent tanks and troops into the northwestern province of Idlib.
The United States accused the Syrian government of creating a "humanitarian crisis" and called on it to halt its offensive and allow immediate, unfettered access by the International Committee for the Red Cross to help refugees, detainees and the wounded.
Human rights groups say security forces have killed more than 1,100 Syrian civilians in increasingly bloody efforts to suppress demonstrations calling for Assad's removal, political freedoms and an end to corruption and poverty. The protests were inspired by uprisings against other entrenched autocrats in the Arab world.
"I'm deeply concerned and saddened (that) so many people have been killed in the course of peaceful demonstrations," said U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"I've talked to President Assad several times ... he must take bold, immediate and decisive actions to listen to the people and to take necessary measures to reflect the will of the people."
At least 36 protesters were shot dead across Syria on Friday, activists said. Syrian authorities deployed helicopter gunships in the town of Maarat al-Numaan, they added, in the first reported use of air power against unrest.