Syrians torn between terror and defiance as regime cracks down

Thousands flee as regime steps up crackdown on protests, with dozens of deaths reported

In a calculated show of defiance to the international community, Syrian helicopter gunships fired on protesters and army tanks shelled civilian homes yesterday, driving hundreds of people out of the country in brutal retaliation for protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad.

Troops from the regime's notorious 4th Division – headed by the President's brother Maher – burnt crops and slaughtered livestock in a show of military might in the north of the country after the regime blamed "armed gangs" for the deaths of 120 of its security forces last week in the rebel town of Jisr al-Shughour. Some witnesses claimed that the security forces were killed during fighting between loyalist troops and defectors who refused to fire on unarmed civilians.

In the first occurrence of air power being used to break up protests, helicopter machine guns fired on demonstrators in the town of Maarat al-Numan, according to witnesses. Snipers fired on crowds elsewhere in the country yesterday, leaving 32 people dead, according to rights groups. But the focus of the military assault was the hills and villages of north-west Syria near the border with Turkey. One witness who fled his village yesterday told The Independent that the military was "shelling everything".

"They entered my town with tanks and started shooting everywhere," said the man, who arrived at the Turkish border yesterday. "They were breaking down doors and shooting with machine guns. I just thank God that I left and that my life was saved."

Witnesses told Reuters that at least 15,000 troops and about 40 tanks and troop carriers had surrounded Jisr al-Shughour, but that the town was now largely deserted. "People were not going to sit and be slaughtered like lambs," one refugee said. As the army massed on the city's outskirts, refugees continued to pour towards the Turkish border. Blood-soaked civilians who had been injured during the army's advance were treated on the ground, while others chanted anti-government slogans in defiance of the regime.

Around 4,000 refugees are now sheltering in Turkey after fleeing through the mountainous woodlands of north-west Syria. One woman who arrived yesterday after fleeing from the town of Sarmaniya, six miles south of Jisr al-Shughour, said: "They destroyed everything. They killed the animals, they burnt the crops. The tanks were shelling buildings and I heard machine-gun fire. They destroyed my town."

Britain and France are leading calls for an end to violence and for international monitors to be allowed into the country. Syria's position in the Middle East, its alliance with Iran and a border with Israel make it a key player in the region's politics. Yet some worry that the deteriorating situation could lead to civil war in a country riven by religious sects.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has kept up its relentless battering of the protest movement, which shows no signs of dying down, despite estimates that 1,300 civilians have been killed since mid-March. The Red Cross demanded yesterday to be allowed in to treat the wounded and said it had not yet been able to. Despite the weekly toll of death and bloodshed, protesters continue to take to the streets in growing numbers every Friday. Thousands again defied the Baathist regime and protested after yesterday's midday prayers. Snipers fired at them from the rooftops in Damascus and the security services also fired on large crowds in Deraa, the southern city besieged by the army when unrest broke out in March.

The international pressure follows growing outrage over atrocities in Syria, including attacks on children and the death of a 15-year-old boy, Thamer al-Sahri, whose bullet-ridden body was released by Syrian authorities and returned to the family home near Deraa. The teenager, who was missing an eye and several teeth, was arrested after attending a demonstration near his home. He was close friends with Hamza al-Khatib, another young schoolboy who went to the same protest and died after being tortured in custody. Amnesty said last night that 32 children between the ages of 12 and 17 remained in custody.

"The more the regime cracks down, the more the people protest," said Andrew Tabler, an expert on Syria from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He added that reports of child torture had galvanised the protesters. Wissam Tarif, executive director of Syrian human rights organisation Insan, said: "When more defections start happening, we can talk about the regime collapsing."

How the unrest spread

31 January

With Tunisia's president ousted and demonstrations growing in Egypt, President Bashar al-Assad tells The Wall Street Journal he will stave off unrest by pushing through reform, but insists he has widespread support.

2 February

About 15 protesters try to hold a candlelight vigil in the old town in Damascus to show solidarity with protesters in Egypt. They are beaten and dispersed by men dressed in civilian clothing as uniformed police look on.

4 February

Calls on Facebook and Twitter for a day of rage across Damascus result in only a handful of protesters turning out. Plain-clothes security forces are deployed throughout the capital to deter unrest.

7 February

Assad launches an economic package including a $250m fund for poorer families. There are few reports of further protests as attention turns to the uprising in Libya.

15-16 March

Up to 200 people protest in Marjeh Square in Damascus holding up placards of relatives they say have disappeared.

18 March

Syrian forces open fire on young people marching in Deraa. In the uprising's first reported deaths, three people are killed in the city.

8 April

Large demonstrations spread outside of Deraa and Damascus for the first time with thousands protesting across the country. Human rights organisations say 37 people are killed.

19 April

Assad's government formally repeals the emergency law. Three days later, 100 people are reported killed in the uprising's biggest single massacre.

25 April-9 May

The military moves to try to suppress all protests. Despite dozens of deaths, protests continue.

4 June

State TV claims that "armed groups" have killed 120 members of the security forces in Jisr al-Shughour.