Heavy fighting was reported in north-western Syria on Monday, amid conflicting claims about the nature and perpetrators of the violence.
Syrian state TV claimed that 120 members of the security services were killed in the town of Jisr al-Shughour, one of the sites of protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad that have rocked the country.
Wissam Tarif, director of the human rights NGO Insan who is in touch with people on the ground, said that the fighting in Jisr al-Shughour, was caused by the defections of low level soldiers. “There is something going on between the army,” he said.
According to the state news agency however, trained gangs armed with “medium-sized weapons, machine guns, hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades” ambushed soldiers, bombed the post office, and later clashed with security forces. The government promised a “decisive” response to the attack.
‘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 Ibrahim Shaar, the interior minister.
Foreign news organisations are banned from Syria and communications in Jisr Al-Shughour and the surrounding area have been cut, making details of the attack impossible to independently verify.
Jisr al-Shughour sits close to the Turkish border and was a centre of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980, when Mr Assad’s father reportedly shelled the town during a crackdown on the movement, killing as many as 70.
In recent days the town has been the focus of a regime crackdown. Activists say military helicopters were deployed last week and claim that at least 42 civilians have been killed since Saturday.
Throughout Syria’s two and a half month popular uprising against the authoritarian Assad regime, in which close to a 1,000 people are believed to have been killed, the authorities have justified their use of force by claiming that protests are being incited by armed gangs and conspirators.
Human rights activists say that whilst protestors may have used violence to defend themselves in certain instances, the overwhelming majority of demonstrators have been unarmed.
According to a western observer in Damascus, however, the “ferocity and co-ordination” of the apparent counterattack in Jisr al-Shagour is “on a different level” to previous clashes, raising the question of who might be supplying the weapons and training, if it is not an army mutiny.
Wissam Tarif claims that the regime is seeking to lure protestors in to taking up arms by leaving weapons behind after military units have been redeployed. “The regime’s strategy is to incite violence inside the community,” said Mr Tarif.
Monday’s violence comes as a delegation of the Syrian opposition in exile prepare to submit evidence to International Criminal Court of what they argue could constitute crimes against humanity by the Syrian authorities in their response to the protest movement.
The international community has so far done little in response to the violent crackdown beyond condemnations and limited sanctions. Russia and China have both objected to a UN Security Council resolution censuring Syria.