msnbc.com news services
updated 6/7/2011 3:18:56 PM ET 2011-06-07T19:18:56

Mutinous Syrian soldiers joined forces with protesters after days of crackdowns in a tense northern region, apparently killing dozens of officers and security guards, residents and activists said Tuesday.

The details of what happened in Jisr al-Shughour remain murky, but if confirmed the mutiny would be an extraordinary crack in the regime, which sees its 40-year grip on the country eroded weekly by thousands of protesters calling for the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

Also Tuesday, Syria's ambassador to France denied in comments aired on Al Arabiya television that she had resigned in protest over Assad's crackdown, as reported France 24 television.

"I am still the Syrian ambassador, the ambassador of the Syrian Arab Republic," Lamia Chakkour said in a telephone interview with the Dubai-based satellite channel. "This is a false impersonation. I did not talk to any channel in the world.''

France 24 earlier aired a telephone interview it said was Chakkour announcing her resignation and denouncing the violence in Syria.

Unconfirmed reports from Syrian sources called the France 24 report a hoax.

The government said 120 security forces died after "armed groups" attacked in Jisr al-Shughour, but has not explained how the heavily armed military could suffer such an enormous loss of life. Communications to the area are spotty, foreign journalists have been expelled, and many people reached by phone are too afraid to talk.

A resident said tensions began last week with snipers and security forces firing repeatedly on peaceful protests and then funerals, killing around 30 people.

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The resident said a number of soldiers ultimately defected, angered by the thuggish behavior of pro-government gunmen known as "shabiha," a fearsome name that some believe has roots in the Arabic word for "ghost."

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.

Jisr al-Shughour is predominantly Sunni but there are Alawite and Christian villages in the area.

"There was heavy gunfire and very loud explosions from across the river on Saturday and Sunday," he said, adding he could not see what was happening from where he lives.

"We heard there were massacres, bodies thrown in the river."

Story: Syria says 120 forces killed in northern 'massacre'

An alleged army deserter, a man who identified himself as Lt. Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, appeared on the Al-Jazeera television network Tuesday and called on other officers to protect protesters against the regime.

"Remember your duties," added Tlass, who shares a last name with a former defense minister and said he was from the town of Rastan. The name Tlass is common among Syrian officers; Rastan — which has also come under deadly government bombardment in recent days — is their hometown.

'Preparing for a major massacre'
France said the latest events in Syria showed Assad has lost legitimacy to rule, and Britain said the president must "reform or step aside"

The Jisr al-Shughour resident said people were fleeing the area for the Turkish border about 12 miles (20 kilometers) away, fearing retaliation from a regime known for ruthlessly crushing dissent. The government vowed Monday to respond "decisively" to the violence there.

"People were struck by fear and panic after the government statements last night, it's clear they are preparing for a major massacre," he said.

In many ways, Syrians say, the shabiha are more terrifying than the army and security forces, whose tactics include firing on protesters. The swaggering gunmen, they say, are deployed specifically to brutalize and intimidate Assad's opponents.

AP
This undated amateur video image posted on the internet and shown on Syrian state television shows a Syrian policeman lying on the ground apparently dead from gunshot wounds in Jisr al-Shughour.

Most shabiha fighters belong to the minority Alawite sect, as do the Assad family and the ruling elite. This ensures the gunmen's loyalty to the regime, built on fears they will be persecuted if the Sunni majority gains the upper hand.

An offshoot of Shiite Islam, the Alawite sect represents about 11 percent of the population in Syria. The sect's longtime dominance has bred seething resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria.

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Jisr al-Shughour was a stronghold of the country's banned Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Human rights groups said at least 42 civilians have been killed there since Saturday.

Some activists also told of a mutiny, with a few soldiers switching sides and defending themselves against attacking security forces. Other reports said many Syrians also took up arms to defend themselves.

A resident of Jisr al-Shughour who spoke from a nearby village where he fled days ago scoffed at reports of armed resistance.

"Since the 80s, residents of Jisr al-Shughour are banned from possessing any kind of weapons, even a hunting rifle," he said. "So how can there be armed resistance?"

Area outside Syria's control?
A prominent activist outside Syria with connections to the area said many Syrians had taken to carrying weapons in response to the killings of protesters. But he said clashes over the past few days were mainly between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Syrian security forces.

He said the weapons were smuggled from Turkey.

"The area is effectively outside the control of Syrian security forces now," he said.

Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, said it was unclear how such a large number of officers were killed.

He said the likely cause was army infighting but added there may be cases of individual residents rising up against troops to defend themselves.

He blamed the government for not explaining: "The statements by officials are full of threats, rather than explanations."

Turkish authorities 35 Syrians wounded in the clashes were being treated Tuesday at Turkish hospitals after crossing the border from Jisr al-Shughour.

The Turkish Foreign Ministry said 224 Syrians were sheltering at a camp near the border and authorities were taking measures in case of an influx of refugees.

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.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Syrian crackdown now includes children

  1. Closed captioning of: Syrian crackdown now includes children

    >>> chief foreign correspondent richard engel is in tripoli. the targeting ? of children has been, you know, appalling and brought more world attention to this outrageous situation in syria . what is the latest that you're hearing from your listening post ?

    >> reporter: well, it is almost hard to know where to start. if we start in syria , there has been more violence today. really destabilizing violence. and emotional scenes partly because so many children have been killed. you mentioned that 11-year-old girl. today there is a funeral for a 13-year-old boy. and he was buried and there were large crowds there to support his family. but also to express anger. the body of this boy has been circulated around the internet. it apparently shows severe torture at the hands of syrian government officials . the boy was shot through both arms, shot through both legs, had his genitals cut off and just a horrific image circulating online. and it has become a rallying cry for people and today he was finally buried. so the protests are no means over in syria . and every time there is another child in -- who is killed or when the body is circulated online, it just adds more fuel to the fire , andrea.

    >> and just heart breaking, horrific as you point out. we had word from the white house today that john brennan , the counterterrorism official from the white house , the nsc, is traveling in the region. he's going to sudan, saudi arabia , to the uae and we had word from hillary clinton , secretary of state today, about the continued unrest in yemen . let me play that and ask you about it on the other side.

    >> we cannot expect this conflict to end unless president saleh and his government move out of the way to permit the opposition and civil society to begin a transition to political and economic ? reform.

    >> of course, the united states has been saying a lot of things about yemen . but there has been no impact on president saleh . what is the latest from yemen ?

    >> well, the situation in yemen has completely deteriorated. the united states , as you know, was involved in trying to negotiate a deal for president saleh to leave power. saudi arabia was also involved. that deal has completely broken down and now there is heavy fighting on the streets of sana and has been going on for the last 24 hours or so between government forces and i should say those are still the government forces that are loyal and military units that remain loyal because there have been major divisions within the yemeni forces, but the ones that are still loyal are now fighting against a group of tribes that are well armed, that are motivated, and have decided to try and drive out saleh by force. and those tribesmen who are led particularly by akmar, one of the tribal leaders in that country, are well armed and numerous. they're one of the most powerful organizations in the society. we have the protesters calling on the government to step down. we have the united states and that click you just played saying that the government needs to move aside. and now this powerful faction of tribal leaders taking up arms to try and push the president of yemen out of power.

    >> and richard, while you've been on the air with us, reuters is reporting a large explosion outside of a hotel in benghazi. i want to give you a chance to go off and do some reporting and we don't know any details about this at all except that it is located in benghazi and it is a large hotel and an explosion. so i know we'll see more from you throughout the day on "nbc nightly news."

    >> we'll be looking into that, thank you.

    >> thank you, richard.

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