THE notoriously murderous brother of President Bashar al-Assad led thousands of Syrian troops towards a mission to wreak vengeance on a rebellious northern town yesterday.
More than 100 residents of Jisr al-Shughur fled across the border to Turkey, while others sought sanctuary in churches and mosques of nearby villages.
They escaped after receiving telephoned warnings that Maher al-Assad, the most feared man in Syria, was on his way at the head of a column of troops.
Witnesses in the surrounding Idlib province said the convoy comprised hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers, who kicked up huge plumes of dust as they sped past.
The advance came amid fears that a British attempt to persuade the UN Security Council to condemn the regime's violence would be blocked by Russia during talks in New York.
Human rights activists appealed for urgent international pressure on the regime, warning that unless Maher al-Assad was halted, his well-known "thirst for blood" would lead to a massacre.
"The world seems to be standing by as a latter-day Genghis Khan marauds thro-ugh the country," one activist in Damascus said. "Maher is a man with a proven record of butchery for butchery's sake. He takes a sadistic delight in inflicting human misery."
Britain and France finally submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council following weeks of negotiations in which Moscow, which has a naval base in the country and regards the Syrian president as an ally, has stubbornly refused to consider international action.
The draft resolution only went so far as to condemn the violence, call for political reform and urge states not to supply arms to the Assad regime that could be used for repression.
Western diplomats indicated that Russia was yet to be wholly convinced by the measure. China, India, Brazil and South Africa, all of which are angry about the expansion of the intervention in Libya, have repeatedly stressed their opposition to interference in Syria.
President Assad turned to his brother, who commands the army's Fourth Division and Republican Guard, after Jisr al-Shughur effectively became the first town to fall from government control since the 11-week uprising began.
Syrian state television said gunmen killed 120 members of the security forces over the weekend. Activists say scores of protesters were mown down by government helicopter gunships and armoured vehicles.
Maher al-Assad's reputation as the regime's "enforcer" was enhanced early on in the uprising after he was sent to quell dissent in the town of Deraa, where hundreds are believed to have died in the operation. (© Daily Telegraph, London)