Middle East

Syria town of Jisr al-Shughour braces for army assault

A grab from footage aired on Syria's state television on 7 June 2011 shows what it said was a policeman shot dead by "terrorist gangs" during a massacre in the town of Jisr al-Shughour on 6 June 2011. NB: Independent reporting on the ground is not allowed, so it is impossible to verify the account of either side.
Image caption State TV showed pictures of what it claimed were security forces killed in Jisr al-Shughour on Monday

Residents of the Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour are said to be fleeing ahead of an expected military assault, after the government said 120 security forces personnel had been killed there.

Residents still in the town have set up checkpoints to monitor any security operations, witnesses say.

The government says it will act "with force" to combat "armed gangs" that it blames for the recent killings.

Activists say the cause of the deaths is unclear, and may involve a mutiny.

They insist that the uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is peaceful.

Following the alleged deaths among the security forces, residents of Jisr al-Shughour posted messages on Facebook saying they feared a slaughter. They called on people to block roads into the town with burning tyres, rocks and tree trunks.

Syrian army tanks and troop carriers backed by helicopters were reported to be on the move.

Travellers between Lattakia and Aleppo told the BBC that Jisr al-Shughour residents had erected checkpoints to monitor any security operations being prepared.

"Today the army started moving in on Jisr al-Shughour from various places, such as the [army] centre in Homs and others from an eastern centre in the Ariha region," a witness told BBC Arabic.

"A lot of our people here have started fleeing, some fled for Turkey and others fled to [neighbouring] regions. We are extremely scared of bloodbaths in Jisr al-Shughour."

'Not terrorists'

Dozens of Syrians who crossed the northern border into Turkey are being treated in hospitals in the south-east of the country for wounds they say they received in clashes with Syrian forces, Turkish officials say.

Communications were cut to the area around Jisr al-Shughour on Monday and the details of the attack were impossible to verify. Syria does not allow foreign journalists into the country to report on events.

Syrian state television said hundreds of gunmen had taken over the town, which lies about 20km (12 miles) from the Turkish border.

It said "armed gangs" ambushed police and 20 officers died. Another 82 personnel were killed when the town's security headquarters were overwhelmed, eight in a bomb attack on a post office and 120 overall, it added.

State TV showed footage of people in uniform lying in the street, saying they were victims of the attacks.

But witnesses told BBC Arabic there were no armed groups in Jisr al-Shughour, and that members of the security forces had been killed for defecting.

"There are army soldiers who gave themselves up to the civilians, they joined the civilians and the army killed them," one witness said.

"I swear to God that we are all civilians... we are not terrorists."

YouTube carried footage, said to be from the town, showing several dead bodies described as soldiers killed by security forces for refusing to fire on people.

There were also videos that showed dead or injured people dressed in civilian clothes, an old woman with head wounds said to have been killed in the fighting, and what appeared to be a large number of victims wrapped in sheets.

International pressure

State television says many civilians from the town have fled to nearby Lattakia, and it carried interviews with people calling on the army to clear Jisr al-Shughour of "armed gangs" they said had been terrorising the town.

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionAlain Juppe: "Bashar has lost his legitimacy to rule the country"

But one video posted on YouTube appeared to show the town square with a huge message written on the road saying "Jisr al-Shughour doesn't want the army to come in".

Interior Minister Ibrahim Shaar vowed: "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."

An Islamist uprising in Jisr al-Shughour in 1980 against the late President Hafez al-Assad was brutally crushed with scores of deaths.

In other developments:

  • several people were reported to have been killed in a clash at the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus. The deaths occurred after some Palestinians accused pro-Syrian Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) of putting lives at risk by sending people to protest at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, where a number of them were shot by Israeli forces
  • Openly gay female Syrian blogger Amina Abdallah was reported missing by her family, after she was allegedly abducted by armed men while going to a meeting with protest organisers in Damascus. She has publicly criticised the regime on her blog, A Gay Girl in Damascus.
  • Syrian state television denied that the country's ambassador to France, Lamia Chakkour, had resigned in protest at the suppression of demonstrators - as reported earlier by France 24
  • France said it was ready to ask the UN Security Council to vote on a draft resolution condemning Damascus and asking for humanitarian access, despite a likely Russian veto
  • British Foreign Secretary William Hague said President Assad was "losing legitimacy and should reform or step aside".

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