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Syria says 120 forces killed in northern 'massacre'

Armed men attacked Syrian security forces in a tense northern city on Monday, killing 120 policemen and security forces, state television said.
/ Source: news services

Armed men attacked Syrian security forces in a tense northern city on Monday, killing 120 policemen and security forces in a region where the army has carried out days of deadly assaults on protesters, state television said.

Communications were cut to the area around Jisr al-Shughour on Monday and the details of the attack were impossible to verify, but there have been unconfirmed reports in the past by residents and activists of Syrians fighting back against security forces.

The government promised a "decisive" response, setting the stage for an even stronger government crackdown against a popular uprising that began in mid-March and poses the most potent threat in years to the 40-year regime of the Assad family.

"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," said Interior Minister Ibrahim Shaar.

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 have been killed there since Saturday.

Monday's state television report said the officers were ambushed as they responded to calls from residents for protection from the armed groups. It said 20 policemen were initially killed, and then the groups blew up a post office and attacked a security post, killing other forces.

The state television report said armed groups in the area carried out a "massacre." It said the groups ambushed police and security forces, blew up the post office, torched government buildings and mutilated bodies.

The report said the armed groups were hiding in homes and firing at security forces and civilians alike, using residents as human shields.

The TV reports could not be independently confirmed. The Syrian government has severely restricted the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events.

Human rights activist Mustafa Osso cast doubt on the government accounts.

"The protesters have so far been peaceful and unarmed," he said. Osso said there were unconfirmed reports of a few army deserters who switched sides and were fighting security forces.

Osso said military operations continued Monday, adding his group had documented the names of at least 42 dead in the operation since Saturday and more than 200 wounded. He said some of the wounded were being treated in neighboring Turkey.

It was the first time officials had reported such a large-scale confrontation in the 11-week uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

Human rights groups say more than 1,200 people have died in the brutal crackdown against anti-government protesters since March.

'Spread terror'
The killings in Jisr al-Shughour began when snipers on the roof of the main post office fired at a funeral for six protesters killed during a demonstration on Friday, residents told Reuters.

Angry mourners set fire to the post office after the shooting, said one Jisr al-Shughour resident, a history teacher who gave his name only as Ahmad. "In the last 24 hours at least 31 people have been shot dead, among them eight mourners at the funeral," he said.

Over the weekend, the official news agency said "armed terrorist groups" killed four police, attacked public buildings including the post office and "spread terror in the heart of citizens who called on the authorities to intervene forcefully to protect them."

In the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, the center of an oil producing area, residents said on Sunday that security forces killed two protesters after mourners set ablaze two buildings belonging to Assad's Baath Party, which has ruled Syria since it seized power in 1963.

Over the weekend, forces had fired at thousands of protesters in the city and injured scores as they tried to reach a main square to topple a statue of late President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father.

Night-time demonstrations have been held daily across Syria to circumvent the heavy security presence, though protests reach a peak after Friday midday prayers.

The killings have been eroding support among the country's majority Sunni population for Assad, who is from the minority Alawite sect.

But central neighborhoods in Damascus and most of Syria's second city Aleppo have remained largely quiet as authorities tighten security in the two cities and many wealthy business families worry about instability.

Pressure on Assad
The crackdown has raised Western pressure on Assad, 45, who has tried to strengthen his regional clout by reaffirming an alliance with Iran and backing militant groups, while responding to Western offers of better ties.

The official state news agency said the prime minister has ordered the formation of a committee to draft a law that would allow "patriotic political parties," but it did not say whether the proposed law would permit opposition to the government.

In one of the bloodiest attacks on protesters, security forces killed at least 70 people in Hama on Friday, and there were reports that more bodies had been taken by security forces and dumped in a public park on Sunday, rights campaigners said.

"The protest was like a big party. Whole families were marching. Women were carrying flowers and chanting for liberty and to bring down the regime of thugs," said one witness, a veterinarian who lives in Hama.

The crackdown in Hama has particular resonance. Forces led by Hafez al-Assad's brother Rifaat killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people there when they put down an armed uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982.

Turkey, once a close ally of Assad, has warned him against "a repetition of Hama." The United States and the European Union have imposed direct sanctions on the Syrian president.