AMMAN (Reuters) – A restive Syrian town awaited a threatened military crackdown on Tuesday after bloody events in which state media say over 120 security personnel were killed.
Exactly what happened in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour at the weekend is unclear, but it seems to have been one of the bloodiest episodes in nearly 12 weeks of popular protests against President Bashar al-Assad's 11-year rule.
Residents said a column of Armored vehicles and troops, apparently heading for Jisr al-Shughour, had reached the town of Ariha, 25 km (16 miles) to the east, a day after Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar said the army would carry out its "national duty to restore security."
Official accounts say gunmen roaming the town and setting fire to government buildings had inflicted the extremely high death toll on security men, said to have been killed in an ambush and attacks on a post office and a security post.
Residents and activists dispute this, saying the casualties followed a mutiny among forces sent to quell civilian protests.
Syria has barred most foreign media from the country, making it hard to verify events. It has released no video footage to back its account of the Jisr al-Shughour bloodshed.
In 1982, Syrian forces crushed an armed Islamist revolt in the city of Hama, where many thousands were killed, on the orders of Assad's father, President Hafez al-Assad.
Jisr al-Shughour residents said violence began when scores of civilians were killed in a crackdown on the hill town on a road between Syria's second city Aleppo and the port of Latakia.
They said security men had raided homes and made scores of arbitrary arrests after the town's largest pro-democracy protest on Friday when at least five people were killed.
The killings enraged the town and prompted defections from security police and troops belonging to Syria's Sunni Muslim majority, they said. Assad and many of his army and security commanders are from the minority Alawite sect.
"Military intelligence agents and security police stormed the town on Monday. Snipers began firing at people who dared go out in the streets. Bodies lay in the streets. Around 100 police and soldiers defected and stood with us," one resident said by phone, adding that six military intelligence agents were killed.
He said pro-Assad Alawite gunmen from neighboring villages, known as 'shabbiha', had been seen around Jisr al-Shughour.
The Syrian human rights organization Sawasiah said the 120 people killed were mostly civilians, or troops apparently shot dead by security agents who refused to join in the crackdown.
"The authorities are repeating their pattern of killings. They choose the town or city where demonstrations have been most vibrant and punish the population," a Sawasiah spokesman said.
Wissam Tarif, director of human rights organization Insan, said the fighting pitted rival army units against each other.
"An army unit or division arrived in the area in the morning. It seems then another unit arrived (later) to contain the mutiny," Tarif told Reuters. He said he had spoken to several people in Jisr al-Shughour who confirmed that account.
A Western diplomat in the region said he took the mutiny reports seriously, although he had no first-hand knowledge of events in Jisr al-Shughour. "It is plausible that the violent response to the protesters is causing widening cracks on sectarian lines within the army," he said.
Rights groups say security forces, troops and gunmen loyal to Assad have killed 1,100 civilians since protests erupted in the southern city of Deraa on March 18. Unrest later spread to the Mediterranean coast and eastern Kurdish regions.
Assad has made some reformist gestures, such as issuing a general amnesty to political prisoners and launching a national dialogue, but protesters and opposition figures have dismissed such measures, saying thousands of political prisoners remain in jail and there can be no dialogue while repression continues.
Another resident, a history teacher who gave his name as Ahmed, said clashes had begun on Saturday when snipers on the roof of the post office fired at a funeral for six protesters killed the day before. Mourners then set the post office ablaze.
State television said eight members of the security forces were killed when gunmen attacked the post office building.
It said at least 20 more were killed in an ambush by "armed gangs," and 82 in an attack on a security post. It said the overall death toll for security forces topped 120.
(Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut; editing by Alistair Lyon)
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