The Syrian government said "armed gangs" had slaughtered at least 120 police officers, security personnel and civilians in Jisr al-Shughour near its border with Turkey on Monday, an account that, if true, suggests a violent shift in the uprising against Syria's hard-line leadership.
CAIRO — The Syrian government said “armed gangs” had slaughtered at least 120 police officers, security personnel and civilians in Jisr al-Shughour near its border with Turkey on Monday, an account that, if true, suggests a violent shift in the uprising against Syria’s hard-line leadership.
While there had been earlier reports of armed clashes between protesters and security forces elsewhere in Syria, this is the first time the government has accused the protest movement of killing so many of its soldiers in a single incident.
Activists and human-rights groups said the number was exaggeration and likely to be used as a pretext for a harsher crackdown.
Witness accounts suggested some violent confrontation had occurred, although there was no independent confirmation of the details or death toll.
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The state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency said the government was dispatching reinforcements to the area and blamed the attacks on “armed gangs,” a phrase the government often uses to describe the protest movement.
Jisr al-Shughour, which is near Syria’s border with Turkey, has become the latest focus of a harsh government campaign against the 11-week-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
Some Syrian activists said they believed the Syrian government was using the episode to justify even harsher measures against the town at a time when the United States is reported to be stepping up an effort to seek tougher sanctions against Syria at the United Nations.
Telephone and Internet service to the town was heavily disrupted Monday night. But residents reached by phone described chaotic scenes of mass flight and street barricades hastily erected by the people to defend against the return of security forces.
“The army split; the confrontation is between them,” said Saeb Jamil, a local activist who said he was helping people flee. “The army is confronting the army.”
Another witness said several Syrian soldiers had been killed by protesters who were defending themselves against an onslaught of attacks by tanks and warplanes. He said the killings occurred Sunday, when Syrian troops staged a major offensive.
“We do not deny shooting back,” said the witness, who spoke by telephone on the condition of anonymity because he fears for his safety. “But you must know that we only shot back after they started killing us. They killed 35 in a few hours.”
Jisr al-Shughour is on a sectarian fault line between the Sunni-dominated agricultural plains to the east and a concentration of villages in the mountains to the west that are populated by Alawites, the minority sect to which Assad and his regime belong.
Tension at border of Syria, Israel
AJDAL SHAMS, Golan Heights — Syria and Israel traded accusations Monday over the death toll in Sunday’s shootings along the border here as Israeli troops prepared for what pro-Palestinian demonstrators were promising would be another attempt to storm across the border Tuesday.
Syrian police said they’d blocked dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters from reaching the hills around Majdal Shams on Monday. But Israel accused Syria of stoking the border tensions in hopes of diverting attention from its own unrest.
Syrian officials said 24 people were killed and 350 wounded Sunday when Israeli troops opened fire. Israeli officials said they thought the death toll was about 10.