THEY came in their thousands to march for freedom in Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, a shabby town surrounded by pristine fields of camomile and pistachio in the restive northwest of Syria.

The demonstration followed a routine familiar to everyone who had taken part each Friday for the past 11 weeks, yet to attend on this occasion required extraordinary courage.

The previous week four protesters had been shot dead for trying to block the main road between Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo, the country’s largest city. The week before that, four others were killed.

So enraged were the townspeople at the blood spilt by the mukhabarat, or secret police, that intermediaries had struck a deal between the two sides. Four hundred members of the security forces had been withdrawn from Ma’arrat in return for the promise of an orderly protest. The remainder, 49 armed police and 40 reserves, were confined to a barracks near the centre of town. By the time 5,000 unarmed marchers reached the main square, however, they had been joined by men with pistols.

At first, the tribal elders leading the march thought these men had simply come prepared to defend themselves if shooting broke out.

But when they saw more weapons – rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers held by men with heavy beards in cars and pick-ups with no registration plates – they knew trouble lay ahead.

Violence erupted as the demonstrators approached the barracks, where the police had barricaded themselves inside. As the first shots rang out, protesters scattered. Some of the policemen escaped through a rear exit, the rest were besieged.

A military helicopter was sent to the rescue. “It engaged the armed protesters for more than an hour,” said one witness, a tribal leader. “It forced them to use most of their ammunition against it to relieve the men trapped in the building.”

Some of the gunmen were hit by bullets fired from the helicopter. When it flew away, the rest of the mob stormed the front entrance of the barracks. A fierce gunfight ensued. Soon, four policemen and 12 of their attackers were dead or dying. Another 20 policemen were wounded. Their barracks was ransacked and set on fire, along with the courthouse and police station.

The officers who escaped the onslaught on June 10 were hidden in the homes of families who had been demonstrating earlier.

Last Friday, I watched Ma’arrat’s latest demonstration for democracy. Only 350 people turned up, mostly young men on motorbikes who raced along the main road towards a line of army tanks deployed in some olive groves. They shouted provocatively and were greeted with stoicism. Local people said the tanks had not moved since they had taken up position 10 days earlier.

The significance of the low turnout was not lost on the tribal elders who have been organising the protests, hoping political reform will bring government money to their neglected town of 100,000 people.

Thousands of ordinary people who had backed them were now staying at home for fear that armed elements would pick another fight.

Reports of gunmen opening fire at protests in at least four towns appear to mark the emergence of a disturbing pattern in a country already torn by three months of protests that have left nearly 1,400 dead and spread trepidation among its neighbours, from Israel to Turkey.

Activists interviewed last week by The Sunday Times fear the gunmen – including some jihadists – could divide the opposition and give Syria’s security forces an excuse to continue firing on their own people.

I ARRIVED in Damascus last Tuesday, the first western journalist to enter Syria with the authorities’ knowledge since the trouble began. Senior officials promised that I could move and report freely.

Putting this to the test, I talked to opposition figures and activists as well as members of President Bashar al-Assad’s government. I found a country whose vibrant people are increasingly determined to secure change and whose leaders seem unsure how to respond.

In the souks and cafes of the ancient capital, life and work continue largely as normal. What struck me as new was that for the first time in more than 20 years of visiting Syria, I heard officials acknowledging their mistakes. The criticism ranged from government corruption to the security forces’ killing of civilians. “They see demonstrators in the hundreds or thousands, chanting anti-government slogans or tearing pictures of Assad – something that only a few months ago would have landed people in jail – and they react heavy-handedly and shoot randomly,” a security official said.

Yet the killing continued during demonstrations on Friday, when 20 people died, most of them in the town of Kiswa, south of the capital.

The demonstrators carried a large Syrian flag to show that they were combining protest with patriotism. But within half an hour a group of men in leather jackets had arrived, carrying AK-47s. The protesters responded by cursing Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother, blamed for the worst atrocities of the crackdown. Cries of “we’re not afraid of you” were followed by shooting from Kalashnikovs and pistols, according to one witness.

“In just a few minutes, I saw 10 protesters on the ground, bleeding heavily,” a witness said. “I saw a child covered in blood.” Hassan Sheeb, 13, reportedly died of his injuries shortly afterwards.

Last Monday, the president promised reform, a national dialogue, changes to the constitution and a clampdown on corrupt officials.

Syria has not had senior members of its military, political or diplomatic establishments defect and Syrian analysts see no immediate threat to the regime. But failure to push through reform could encourage armed elements, including jihadists, to exploit frustration.

“If these reforms are not translated as promised within the next few months, we will bring the regime down,” said one man at a meeting of tribal leaders last week The others nodded in agreement.