BEIRUT — Syrian soldiers and police officers who deserted rather than fire on protesters in a restive northern city remained behind to fight against an expected all-out government assault, a resident said. Troops loyal to the regime came under sniper fire Saturday as they approached.
Tanks and thousands of forces sealed the roads leading to the mostly deserted town of Jisr al-Shughour in response to what the government claims were attacks by "armed groups" that killed more than 120 officers and security personnel last week. Refugees reaching Turkey said the chaos erupted as government forces and police mutinied and joined the local population.
President Bashar Assad is struggling to crush a nearly three-month uprising against his family's 40-year rule. Human rights groups say more than 1,300 people have died in the government crackdown.
Syrian troops backed by tanks, helicopters and heavy armor have been operating in the area for several days, and it was not clear why the army was delaying an assault.
Journalists invited to accompany troops to the north, including an AP reporter, came under fire about a mile outside Jisr al-Shughour, and the government blamed snipers stationed in nearby hills. No casualties were reported.
Residents and activists reported heavy gunfire in the Qarqouz village, about 4 miles (7 kilometers) from Jisr al-Shughour, after the army and security forces stormed in, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
The rare invitation on an organized trip apparently reflects a new government effort to counter criticism and prove the existence of armed gangs. The government has denied a mutiny.
Authorities said they have made some arrests and killed and wounded many of the armed men around Jisr al-Shughour, a city of about 40,000 that has been largely abandoned by residents afraid of a coming government attack.
About 80 percent of the population has fled, with more than 4,000 Syrians taking sanctuary across the nearby Turkish frontier.
Jamil Saeb, an activist from the town who was reached by phone, suggested the army was afraid to take on the people who stayed behind because Jisr al-Shughour is "known to be exceptionally fierce." He said several army deserters and officers were still there and have vowed to protect unarmed residents.
Jisr al-Shughour and the province of Idlib have a history of animosity toward the regime, which until recently has maintained tight control over its people. The town's Muslim Brotherhood population rose up against Assad's father, the late president Hafez Assad, in the late 1970s. It came under heavy government bombardment in 1980, with a reported 70 people killed. Residents say the numbers were much higher.
The events proved a prelude to a 1982 three-week bombing campaign against the city of Hama that crushed a Sunni uprising there, killing 10,000 to 25,000 people, according to Amnesty International estimates.
"They (regime) have a grudge against Jisr al-Shughour since the 80s," Saeb said.
"We hope we will not have to take up weapons," he added, saying remaining residents were so far insisting on "peaceful resistance." Saeb spoke using a Turkish mobile phone from a town only few miles from the border.
Confirming information out of Syria is difficult. Communications are cut in areas where the uprising is strongest, including Jisr al-Shughour. Syrians who speak openly face retribution from the regime, and foreign journalists have been expelled.
Undaunted by the continuing and brutal crackdown, protests extended to every major city Friday, and activists said 36 people were killed when security forces opened fire during demonstrations across the country. The dead included 20 from the northern Idlib province, home to Jisr al-Shughour.
Twenty-five miles (40 kilometers) to the southeast in the town of Maaret al-Numan, thousands of protesters overwhelmed security forces and torched the courthouse and police station. The army responded with tank shells, a Syrian opposition figure told The Associated Press by telephone, speaking on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution.
Syrian TV appeared to confirm at least part of the report, saying gunmen opened fire on police stations, causing casualties among security officials.
Backed by helicopters and tanks, the troops responsible for most of Friday's violence were believed to be from an elite division commanded by Assad's younger brother, Maher. The decision to mobilize his unit against the most serious threats to the Assad regime could be a sign of concern about the loyalty of regular conscripts.
Syria's brutal crackdown has angered the leader of neighboring Turkey, who accused the Assad regime of "savagery."
A Turkish official at Altinozu on the Turkish side of the border said capacity was near full at the camp there and newcomers would be taken to a third camp at Boynuyogun. Workers on Saturday were putting the final touches to the camp there, welding fences around the camp and laying power lines.
"We don't expect the inflow to end rapidly. The news we are hearing is that there are more people waiting to get in on the other side," said UNHCR spokesman Metin Corabatir.
In the Turkish border town of Yayladagi, authorities set up four field hospitals, each with a 10-bed capacity, for emergency cases, the state-run Anatolia news agency said.
Most of the nearly 50 Syrians, who were wounded in clashes in Jisr al-Shughour or elsewhere recently, were being treated at the state hospital in the Turkish city of Hatay.
One of them, who only identified himself with his first name, Ahmad, told an Associated Press reporter at his hospital bed on Saturday that he was hit by three bullets during a protest in Jisr al-Shughour last Saturday.
He was speaking with difficulty since one of the bullets hit him in the neck.
"The snipers suddenly started firing onto us from three buildings," Ferah, a Turkish relative, quoted him as saying in Arabic. "I was hit in the neck and chest first but a third bullet found my right arm when I raised it while on the ground."
"Allah gave me another life," Ahmad said.
AP writer Selcan Hacaoglu contributed to this report from Boynuyogun, Turkey.