BEIRUT, Lebanon - Armed men killed 120 Syrian security forces and torched government buildings Monday in a northern region where troops have unleashed deadly assaults on protesters for days, Syria said. The government vowed to respond "decisively," hinting at an even more brutal crackdown by a regime known for ruthlessly crushing dissent.
If confirmed, the attack in the north would be a turning point in what so far has largely been a peaceful uprising threatening the 40-year rule of President Bashar al-Assad and his family.
Opposition activists were skeptical of the official casualty toll, saying the authorities were setting the stage for a new onslaught. But even they acknowledged that there was fighting, although it was not clear who was involved. The government described the attackers as "armed gangs," a phrase it often uses to describe the protesters.
Communications were cut Monday to the area around Jisr al-Shughour, and the details of the attack were impossible to verify. But there have been unconfirmed reports by activists and residents in the past of Syrians and even mutinous troops fighting back against security forces.
Adnan Mahmoud, the chief government spokesman, acknowledged that Syrian forces had lost control of some areas for "intermittent periods of time" and said residents had appealed to the army to do what was necessary to restore security.
"We will deal strongly and decisively, and according to the law, and we will not be silent about any armed attack that targets the security of the state and its citizens," Interior Minister Ibrahim Shaar said.
The surprisingly high death toll among pro-regime troops would suggest some sort of major backlash against the crackdown on the uprising - though by whom was unknown because of the seal over the area. Regardless of who carried out Monday's attack, it shows new cracks in a rule that has held out through weekly protests of thousands of people.
Human-rights activist Mustafa Osso said there were unconfirmed reports of a few soldiers who switched sides and were defending themselves against attacking security forces. But the reports, he said, suggest the mutiny is limited and "does not pose a threat to the unity of the army yet."
"The protesters have so far been peaceful and unarmed," Osso said.
A Syrian activist speaking on condition of anonymity said there were unconfirmed reports of infighting between security forces. "The situation is very foggy, it is unclear who is doing the shooting, but the situation is very serious and appears to be getting out of control," he said on condition of anonymity.
He said there were fears the army was preparing a major attack.
Before Monday's killings, the government and some human-rights groups have said that more than 160 soldiers and security forces had died in the uprising. The latest deaths marked by far the deadliest single strike against them.
The government's unusual admission of the death toll and loss of control appeared to set the stage for an even stronger action to crush a popular uprising that began in mid-March and poses a potent threat to the Assad regime.
State television added the armed groups carried out a "real massacre," mutilating some bodies and throwing others in the Orontes River.
Jisr al-Shughour, about 12 miles from the Turkish border, has been the latest focus of Syria's military, whose nationwide crackdown on the revolt has left more than 1,200 Syrians dead, activists say.
The town was a stronghold of the country's banned Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Human-rights groups said at least 42 civilians had been killed there since Saturday.
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.
Details of the operations in Jisr al-Shughour and nearby Khan Sheikhoun have been sketchy, and attempts to reach residents of the town were unsuccessful.
Syria, Israel Spar Over Toll
Syria and Israel traded accusations Monday over the death toll in Sunday's shootings along the
Golan Heights border 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 had blocked dozens of such demonstrators Monday from reaching the hills around the Golan Heights town of Majdal Shams.
But Israel accused Syria
of stoking the border tensions in hopes of diverting attention from
its murderous campaign against antigovernment demonstrators.
Syrian officials said 24 people were killed and 350 wounded Sunday when hundreds of protesters tried to cross the border fence and Israeli troops opened fire. Israeli officials expressed doubt over Syria's figures, saying they thought the death toll was about 10. Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged that Israeli officials had no way to know precisely.
The United States contended that Syria was behind the confrontations, and State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that "Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself."
Majdal Shams is claimed
by both Syria and Israel. It's been under Israeli control since the 1967 Six-Day War.
- McClatchy Newspapers