SANA) EDITORIAL USE ONLY, Associated Press
BEIRUT — Mutinous Syrian soldiers joined forces with protesters after days of crackdowns in a tense northern region, apparently killing dozens of officers and security guards, residents and activists said Tuesday.
The details of what happened in Jisr al-Shughour remain murky, but if confirmed the mutiny would be an extraordinary crack in the regime, which sees its 40-year grip on the country eroded weekly by thousands of protesters calling for the ouster of President Bashar Assad.
The government said 120 troops and police died after "armed groups" attacked in Jisr al-Shughour, but has not explained how the heavily armed military could suffer such an enormous loss of life. Communications to the area are spotty, foreign journalists have been expelled, and many people reached by phone are too afraid to talk.
The town drew the most recent assault by Syria's military, whose nationwide crackdown on the revolt against Assad has left more than 1,300 Syrians dead, activists say. A resident said tensions began last week with snipers and security forces firing repeatedly on peaceful protests and then funerals, killing around 30 people.
The resident said a number of soldiers ultimately defected, angered by the thuggish behavior of pro-government gunmen known as "shabiha," a fearsome name that some believe has roots in the Arabic word for "ghost."
The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals, said the gunmen were terrorizing residents and trying to stir up sectarian tensions.
Jisr al-Shughour is predominantly Sunni but there are Alawite and Christian villages in the area. The Alawite minority rules over Sunni majority in Syria, and the uprising has stirred sectarian tensions.
"There was heavy gunfire and very loud explosions from across the river on Saturday and Sunday," he said, adding he could not see what was happening from where he lives.
"We heard there were massacres, bodies thrown in the river."
There have been sporadic reports since the uprising began of troops defecting and even reports of military units fighting each other, but if the government's toll is confirmed, this would by far be the deadliest mutiny. Assad's army has always been the regime's fiercest defender.
An alleged army deserter, a man who identified himself as Lt. Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, appeared on the Al-Jazeera television network Tuesday and called on other officers to protect protesters against the regime.
"Remember your duties," added Tlass, who shares a last name with a former defense minister and said he was from the town of Rastan. The name Tlass is common among Syrian officers; Rastan — which has also come under deadly government bombardment in recent days — is their hometown.
France said the latest events in Syria showed Assad has lost legitimacy to rule, and Britain said the president must "reform or step aside"
The Jisr al-Shughour resident said people were fleeing the area for the Turkish border about 12 miles (20 kilometers) away, fearing retaliation from a regime known for ruthlessly crushing dissent. The government vowed Monday to respond "decisively" to the violence there.
"People were struck by fear and panic after the government statements last night, it's clear they are preparing for a major massacre," he said.
In many ways, Syrians say, the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security forces, whose tactics include firing on protesters. Most shabiha fighters belong to the minority Alawite sect, as do the Assad family and the ruling elite. This ensures the gunmen's loyalty to the regime, built on fears they will be persecuted if the Sunni majority gains the upper hand.
Jisr al-Shughour was a stronghold of the country's banned Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Human rights groups said at least 42 civilians have been killed there since Saturday.
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