AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces shot dead at least 28 at rallies after Friday prayers, activists said, and refugees described gunbattles between mutinous soldiers and other troops in recent days.
The Syrian army swept into the northwestern border town of Jisr al-Shughour and began to arrest "armed opponents", state television said. Thousands of civilians have fled the town into Turkey, fearing the security forces' revenge for incidents in which 120 troops were reported killed this week.
State television said that some 35 km (20 miles) away, well-armed "terrorist groups" burned police buildings and killed members of the security forces in the town of Maaret al-Nouman.
The nature of the alleged "terrorist groups" was unclear. Authorities have repeatedly tried to portray anti-government protesters as armed and violent.
But protesters, refugees in Turkey and rights activists said some soldiers in the northwest had refused to shoot at protesters and fighting had broken out between loyalist and mutinous forces this week.
"There were peaceful protests today (in Maaret) calling for freedom and for the downfall of the regime," one demonstrator said by phone. "The security forces let us protest, but when they saw the size of the demonstration grow, they opened fire to disperse us."
"During the protest, two officers and three soldiers refused to open fire so we carried them on our shoulders. After that, we were surprised to see helicopters firing on us."
A 40-year-old man who had fled across the border into Turkey from Jisr al-Shughour with a bullet still in his thigh also described mutiny in Syrian ranks.
"Some of the security forces defected and there were some in the army who refused the orders of their superiors," he said. "They were firing on each other."
Human rights activists aired a YouTube video purporting to be from a Lieutenant Colonel Hussein Armoush saying he had defected with soldiers to "join the ranks of the masses demanding freedom and democracy.
"We had sworn in the armed forces to direct our fire at the enemy and not on our own defenceless people. Our duty is to protect citizens and not to kill them," he said in the video, whose authenticity could not be immediately verified.
Fifty-seven Syrians from Jisr al-Shughour were in hospital in Turkey, its state-run Anatolian news agency said on Friday.
Ahmad Abdellatif, 27, who lay paralysed in hospital with three bullet wounds, said Syrian military intelligence agents on rooftops had fired on him and other unarmed people who assembled in a public garden after a funeral for a protester.
Abu Ata, who was shot in the back, said he had been among uniformed Red Crescent workers aiding mourners at another funeral this week when they came under fire from rooftops.
"It was a deliberate hit aimed to kill," he said.
The northwest border area, like other protest hotspots, is prone to tension between majority Sunni Muslims and Assad's Alawite sect, which dominates the Syrian power elite. The Jisr al-Shughour violence may hint at splits within security forces, where commanders are mainly Alawite and conscripts Sunni, that would increase the risk of Syria descending into civil war.
Elsewhere in Syria tens of thousands of people marched to call for the overthrow of the president.
"Long live Syria, down with Bashar al-Assad!" many shouted.
Security forces shot dead at least two demonstrators taking part in a rally in the Qaboun district of the capital Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Some troops fired from rooftops at marchers, activists said.
Residents said government forces also killed two protesters in the village of Busra al-Harir in the southern Hauran plain and fired on thousands defying a heavy security presence in the southern city of Deraa, fount of the three-month-old revolt.
"There was a demonstration of 1,000 people when security police fired from their cars," a Busra al-Harir resident said, giving the names of the dead as Abdelmuttaleb al-Hariri and Adnan al-Hariri. The latter was an amputee, residents said.
However, state television said unidentified gunmen killed a member of the security forces and a civilian in Busra al-Harir.
Another protester was shot dead in the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
A Turkish newspaper said Ankara was looking into creating a buffer zone along the border as a contingency if hundreds of thousands of Syrians were drive out by the military campaign to stamp out protests against 41 years of Assad family domination.
RESIDENTS FEAR "SLAUGHTER"
Demonstrators demanding the "downfall of the regime" and chanting slogans in support of compatriots in Jisr al-Shughour took to the streets in the oil-producing eastern province of Deir al-Zor, the central cities of Hama and Homs, the main Mediterranean port of Latakia and the Tabaqa region on the Euphrates River in Raqqa province, activists and residents said.
Tens of thousands of people marched unchallenged in Hama, they said, well above the turnout of the previous Friday when security forces killed at least 70 protesters.
Protests were also reported in five Damascus suburbs, Syria's second largest city Aleppo and Maarat al-Numan near Jisr al-Shughour, but their size was not immediately clear.
Inhabitants said at least 15,000 troops along with some 40 tanks and troop carriers had deployed near Jisr al-Shughour.
"Jisr al-Shughour is practically empty. People were not going to sit and be slaughtered like lambs," said one refugee who crossed on Wednesday and who gave his name as Mohammad.
Residents said troops and armoured vehicles heading for the town had stormed Sarmaniya village, 10 km (six miles) south of Jisr al-Shughour, and cut off the region's communications.
"They began as usual by firing heavy machineguns into the village. But the people of Sarmaniya had mostly left. Hundreds of troops and security forces have defected in the last several days. They (pro-Assad forces) might be thinking that they will find some in Sarmaniya," said the witness, who was speaking by phone from the outskirts of Jisr al-Shughour.
RED CROSS CALL FOR ACCESS
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) urged Syria to allow its aid workers wider access to the civilian population without further delay, including people who have been wounded or detained in the military clampdown on public dissent.
Rights groups say over 1,100 civilians have been killed since March in the revolt to demand more political freedoms and an end to corruption and poverty.
"Whether Assad still has the legitimacy to govern his own country, I think is a question everyone needs to consider," said U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Friday.
Britain, France, Germany and Portugal have asked the U.N. Security Council to condemn Assad, although veto-wielding Russia has said it would oppose such a move as counter-productive.
World powers have shown no appetite for any Libya-style military intervention in Syria because it sits on a major fault line of Middle East conflict, allied with Iran against nearby Israel. The Syrian leadership has shrugged off mild punitive sanctions imposed so far, and verbal reprimands from abroad.
At the Yayladagi refugee camp in Turkey, nestled in a scenic valley close to the Syrian frontier, children played football while families sat talking under trees sheltering them from the baking Middle East summer sun. Police kept journalists away.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan reiterated on Thursday that Turkey would keep its gates open to people from Syria. But he complained that Damascus was taking the issue "very lightly" and Ankara could not defend its "inhumane" reply to the unrest.
Assad, 45, has promised reforms, even while cracking down on unrest posing the gravest threat to his 11 years of iron rule.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Hudson, Ece Toksabay and Tulay Karadeniz in Turkish border area, Mariam Karouny and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; editing by Andrew Roche)