Around 120 security personnel were killed in the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour, most of them in a single violent ambush, state television said on Monday.
The assault on the third day of clashes in the northwestern town appears to have been the deadliest anti-government strike in the 11-week uprising against President Bashar Assad.
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“Martyrs from security [forces] and police were killed in an ambush by armed gangs in Jisr al-Shughour. They were on their way to answer a call for aid from civilians terrorized in Jisr al-Shughour,” the station said.
“The armed groups are using weapons and grenades.... The people in Jisr al-Shughour are urging the army to intervene speedily,” the station reported earlier. It said security personnel had clashed with hundreds of gunmen who had set up blockades in the town.
Interior Minister Muhammad Ibrahim al-Shaar said the authorities would respond harshly to the attacks. “We will deal firmly and decisively based on the law, [and we] will never be silent over any armed attack that targets the country’s security,” he said in a televised statement.
The Idlib Governorate, in the northwest border region near Turkey where Jisr al-Shughour is situated, is a traditional stronghold of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
In 1980, government forces shelled the restive town of 40,000, killing 70.
Monday’s television report said the officers were ambushed while responding to residents’ calls for protection from “armed groups,” The Associated Press reported. It said 20 policemen were initially killed, and then the groups blew up a post office and attacked a security post, killing eight more security personnel.
The report said the gunmen were hiding in homes and shooting at security forces and civilians alike, using residents as human shields.
“The armed groups mutilated the bodies of some police and security forces martyrs, throwing the bodies of others into the Orontes River,” the state news agency SANA reported.
“The groups blocked roads, attacked the houses and terrified citizens, in addition to storming public and private buildings and destroying shops.”
The death toll ballooned as the day wore on, with state media reporting 28 killed, then 40, 80 and 120. The New York Times reported from Cairo (nearly all foreign journalists are barred from Syria) that Monday’s clashes appear to indicate that the Syrian revolt – largely peaceful until now – may be turning more violent.
Some opposition figures said the dead were soldiers killed by their own
comrades for refusing to shoot on civilians, Army Radio reported, but
those reports remained unconfirmed.
Human rights activist Mustafa Osso cast doubt on the government
accounts. “The protesters have so far been peaceful and unarmed,” he
told AP, adding that there were unconfirmed reports of army deserters
who switched sides and were fighting against security forces.
Activists put the Syrian uprising’s total death toll at 1,200.Reuters contributed to this report.