To quell anti-government protests in Syria, Bashar al-Assad's regime has reportedly employed everything from tanks to snipers. But activists tell Reuters that Syrian security forces turned to air power for the first time today by unleashing helicopter gunships to disperse tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in the northern town of Maarat al-Numaan. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says security forces on the ground killed five demonstrators (28 were reportedly killed in mass protests across Syria today) but the helicopter assault itself didn't result in any deaths. Syria's state-run Syrian Arab News Agency claims that the regime sent "rescue helicopters" to the town to evacuate security forces who were killed or wounded by "armed groups" in an attack like the one the government reported in the nearby town of Jisr al-Shoughour on Monday (for the record, while Reuters says today marked Syria's first aerial attack, activists told The New York Times that they saw helicopter gunships in Jisr al-Shoughour last weekend).
Events in Maarat al-Numaan today touch on another major theme in the Syrian uprising this week: the question of whether Syria's security apparatus is experiencing a wave of defections (the regime denies the claims). A demonstrator tells Reuters that during the protest on Friday, "two officers and three soldiers refused to open fire so we carried them on our shoulders." Reuters adds that the security forces may also be splintering along sectarian lines; Syria's commanders generally belong to Assad's minority Alawite sect while its foot soldiers are generally Sunni. In this English-subtitled video uploaded by Syrian activists, an officer allegedly defects from the army and joins the democratic uprising (another officer who says he defected spoke to the advocacy group Avaaz about the tactics he used to crack down on unarmed protesters).
Jisr al-Shoughour, meanwhile, has become a ghost town, as a reported 15,000 Syrian troops and 40 tanks sweep into the area. "People were not going to sit and be slaughtered like lambs," one refugee who fled into Turkey tells Reuters (the photo above shows Syrian refugees at a camp in Turkey today). This footage highlighted by Al Jazeera shows burned fields and dead cattle outside the town. The voice in the video says "even the land and the animals didn't manage to escape Bashar and his brother Maher's evil deeds."
Syrian protesters didn't meet resistance everywhere today. As Reuters notes, tens of thousands of people marched "unchallenged" in Hama, where security forces killed at least 70 people last Friday. This footage, via the Times, appears to show Syrian authorities removing a statue of Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, in Hama to prevent protesters from destroying it (it gets interesting about a minute in):
NPR's Andy Carvin points us to footage of the large rally in Hama today (check out the guy hanging from something or other about 35 seconds in)