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 security forces 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.
"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."
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 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. The swaggering gunmen, they say, are deployed specifically to brutalize and intimidate Assad’s opponents.
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.
An offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Alawite sect represents about 11 percent of the population in Syria. The sect’s longtime dominance has bred seething resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria.
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.
Some activists also told of a mutiny, with a few soldiers switching sides and defending themselves against attacking security forces. Other reports said many Syrians also took up arms to defend themselves.
A resident of Jisr al-Shughour who spoke from a nearby village where he fled days ago scoffed at reports of armed resistance.
"Since the 80s, residents of Jisr al-Shughour are banned from possessing any kind of weapons, even a hunting rifle," he said. "So how can there be armed resistance?"
A prominent activist outside Syria with connections to the area said many Syrians had taken to carrying weapons in response to the killings of protesters. But he said clashes over the past few days were mainly between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian security forces.
He said the weapons were smuggled from Turkey.
"The area is effectively outside the control of Syrian security forces now," he said.
Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said it was unclear how such a large number of officers were killed.
He said the likely cause was army infighting but added there may be cases of individual residents rising up against troops to defend themselves.
He blamed the government for not explaining: "The statements by officials are full of threats, rather than explanations."
Turkish authorities said 35 Syrians wounded in the clashes were being treated Tuesday at Turkish hospitals after crossing the border from Jisr al-Shughour.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry said 224 Syrians were sheltering at a camp near the border and authorities were taking measures in case of an influx of refugees.
Syria’s government has a history of violent retaliation against dissent, including a three-week bombing campaign against the city of Hama that crushed an uprising there in 1982. Jisr al-Shughour itself came under government shelling in 1980, with a reported 70 people killed.