BEIRUT, Lebanon - A deadly mutiny of Syrian soldiers and loss of control over a tense northern town appeared to show extraordinary cracks in an autocratic regime that has long prided itself on its iron control.
Details about the events in Jisr al-Shughour remained murky Tuesday. The government said 120 forces were dead, without explaining the enormous loss of life, and acknowledged losing "intermittent" control of the area.
But reports Tuesday from residents and activists - and the television appearance of a soldier who says he switched sides after his hometown was bombarded - were the clearest sign yet that the weekly protests of thousands of Syrians are eroding President Bashar al-Assad's grip.
The foreign minister of France, Syria's former colonial ruler with whom Assad maintained good relations, said the president had lost his legitimacy to rule. And British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Assad must "reform or step aside."
Unlike the early days of the rebellion in Libya, Assad has managed to keep his government together. On Tuesday, the network France 24 aired audio that it said was of the Syrian ambassador to France, Lamia Shakkour, issuing a stinging resignation; less than an hour later, Syrian state TV broadcast different audio of a woman's voice denying she had quit and threatening to sue France 24. It was not possible to reconcile the two accounts or contact Shakkour.
Activists and residents of Jisr al-Shughour said a number of soldiers joined forces with protesters after days of crackdowns in the region, leading to fighting with officers and security guards in which dozens were killed.
A Jisr al-Shughour resident said people were fleeing 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 in the area.
"It's clear they are preparing for a major massacre," the resident said.
Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian dissident and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, said the scale of the mutiny was unknown. The Syrian army is a strong institution, Ziadeh said, "but in the end, the army is from the people. The outrage over the killings is growing, and the longer it goes on, the more deserters we're going to see."
An alleged army deserter who identified himself as Lt. Abdul-Razzaq Tlass and said he was from the town of Rastan in central Syria appeared on the Al-Jazeera television network Tuesday, saying he was deserting because of the regime's "crimes" all over the country.
He called on other officers to protect protesters against the regime. "Remember your duties," added Tlass.
Jisr al-Shughour 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 about 30 people.
The resident said a number of soldiers ultimately defected, angered by the thuggish behavior of pro-government gunmen known as "Shabiha."
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.
"We heard there were massacres, bodies thrown in the river," he said.
Jisr al-Shughour is predominantly Sunni, but there are Alawite and Christian villages in the area. The Alawite minority rules over the Sunni majority in Syria.
Jisr al-Shughour was a stronghold of Syria's banned Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Human-rights groups said at least 42 civilians had been killed there since Saturday.
Amina Arraf, a Syrian American lesbian blogger known for her frank posts about her sexuality and her open criticism of President Bashar al-Assad's autocratic rule, was detained after weeks on the run in the Syrian capital, her cousin and an activist said Tuesday.
Arraf wrote a blog, "A Gay Girl in Damascus," a mixture of erotic prose and updates on the Syria uprising, including her participation in anti-
Her cousin Rania Ismail said Arraf was last seen Monday being bundled into a car by three men in civilian clothes. Ismail said Arraf was detained as she and a friend were on their way "to meet a person involved" with an activist group that helps organize and document the protests.
Since the uprising began in March, a government crackdown has left 1,300 dead and more than 10,000 detained, rights groups say. Homosexuality is illegal in Syria, and gays are frowned upon by the conservative society.
- Associated Press