YAYLADAGI, Turkey – Elite Syrian forces moved swiftly through the country’s restive north Friday, raining tank shells on rebellious towns, torching farmland and shooting protesters who tried to tear down a poster of President Bashar Assad, activists and refugees said.

At least 32 people were killed, activists said, and undaunted protests extended to every major city.

The leader of neighboring Turkey, angered by violence that has sent more than 4,000 Syrians streaming across the border, accused the Assad regime of “savagery.”

Backed by helicopters and tanks, the troops responsible for most of Friday’s violence were believed to be from an elite division commanded by Assad’s younger brother, Maher. The decision to mobilize his unit against the most serious threats to the 40-year Assad regime could be a sign of concern about the loyalty of regular conscripts.

Syrians who escaped from the town of Jisr al-Shughour into Turkey said the army came after police turned their guns on each other and soldiers refused orders to fire on protesters last week. Syrian state television has said 120 officers and security personnel were killed by gunmen. A man who remained behind said the few residents left were hoping barricades of burning tires could hold off the reinforcements surrounding them.

Twenty-five miles to the southeast in the town of Maaret al-Numan, thousands of protesters overwhelmed security officers and torched the courthouse and police station, and the army responded with tank shells, a Syrian opposition figure said during a telephone call.

Syria’s state-run television appeared to confirm at least part of the report, saying gunmen opened fire on police stations, causing casualties among security officials.

Syria’s government has a history of violent retaliation against dissent, including a three-week bombing campaign against the city of Hama that crushed an uprising there in 1982. Jisr al-Shughour itself came under government shelling in 1980, with a reported 70 people killed.

Refugees trying to escape into Turkey, who now number more than 4,000, gave a more detailed picture of the events in the north.

A group of young men who arrived at the Turkish village of Guvecci on Friday said relatives who stayed behind told them Syrian forces were burning homes and fields in the village of Sirmaniyeh, near Jisr al-Shughour. One of the men said helicopters had fired on a mosque there.

“They are burning down everything there,” said a young man who gave his name as Adil. “They said they even killed animals. The people have no weapons, they can’t defend themselves. The only thing they can do is escape.”

As he spoke, another Syrian got a call telling him his cousin had died in Latakia, where activists said security forces fired on protesters who tried to tear down a giant poster of Assad, killing seven.

The Local Coordination Committees, a group that documents anti-government protests in Syria, said 32 people were killed Friday, half of them in Idlib, the province home to Maaret al-Numan and Jisr al-Shughour. Late Friday, Syrian television said troops reached the entrances of Jisr al-Shughour and detained members of “armed groups.”

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. Witnesses contacted by telephone said most residents had abandoned the town of up to 45,000.

In Sirmaniyeh, where the refugee reported the torching of homes and fields, journalists accompanying Syrian troops saw a parked army bus, its front windshield smashed by gunfire. The army said the bus was ambushed early Friday, and that driver escaped unhurt after a bullet struck his protective vest.

Journalists were also shown eight grenades on a roadside in Ziara, another village in the area.

“Now we feel safe,” said Walida Sheikho, 50, who welcomed the troops in the village of Foro, near Jisr al-Shughour.

She and other residents offered food, water and juice to the Syrian troops and said they had appealed for help from the army.

Jisr al-Shughour is a predominantly Sunni town with some Alawite and Christian villages nearby. Most Syrians are Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

State television said armed groups torched crops and wheat fields around Jisr al-Shughour as the army approached.

A man in the town blamed security forces for the crop-burning. He said the few remaining residents were collecting tires to burn in an attempt to try to block the army advance. Speaking by phone, said about 40 tanks rolled into a village five miles from Jisr al-Shughour. He and other activists reported hearing bursts of machine gun fire.

Other protests in Syria occurred in neighborhoods in the capital, Damascus, and the major city of Aleppo, which are vital to Assad’s authoritarian regime. But the demonstrations in those cities have been relatively limited in scope compared to other restive areas.

Activists 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.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said he will keep the frontier open to Syrians fleeing violence, and the Turkish military was increasing border security to better manage the refugee influx. He singled out Assad’s brother for criticism.

“I say this clearly and openly, from a humanitarian point of view, his brother is not behaving in a humane manner. And he is chasing after savagery,” Erdogan said late Thursday.