YAYLADAGI – Elite Syrian forces moved swiftly through the country’s restive north yesterday, raining tank shells on rebellious towns, torching farmland and shooting protesters who tried to tear down a poster of President Bashar Assad. At least 32 people were killed, activists said, and protests extended to every major city.

Backed by helicopters and tanks, the troops responsible for most of yesterday’s violence were believed to be from an elite division commanded by Assad’s younger brother, Maher.

Syrians who escaped from the town of Jisr al-Shughour into neighbouring 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 said 120 officers and security personnel were killed by gunmen. 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, said a Syrian opposition figure.

Syria’s state-run television appeared to confirm at least part of the report.

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.