Syria: 120 Government Troops Killed By Gunmen

The Syrian government says armed gangs have killed at least 120 government troops in a town near the Turkish border. The fighting could mark a turning point in what has been a largely peaceful uprising. Government officials have vowed to deal with the killings decisively, and activists say many residents are fleeing in anticipation of a major military attack.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

In Syria, the government is claiming that armed gangs have killed at least 120 government troops in a town near the Turkish border. Reports of the fighting are sketchy, but it could mark a turning point in what has been a largely peaceful uprising. The Syrian government has vowed to deal with the killings decisively. NPR's Deborah Amos is following events from Beirut and joins us now.

Deb, what do we know about what precisely is happening in this town?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, Renee, Syrian activists report that the residents of Jisr al-Shughour are fleeing, some heading to the border. It's about 10 miles away. Many of those people are wounded. A security crackdown was tough on Friday. Activists say that armed helicopters were used against protesters. Then on Monday, we got this report of 120 security police dead, killed by what the Syrian government says is armed gangs and that the government lost control of the area.

Now, one activist told me last night that there's this nightly call among protest leaders. And those in Jisr al-Shughour have been arguing for weeks that it was time to fight back. Relatives in touch with that town say there was a clash between armed protesters and the security forces.

So this means that Syria could be heading for a dangerous new phase in this uprising. And it could lead to a civil war rather than peaceful protests.

MONTAGNE: Well, tell us about this town. Events there seem to have taken a different turn from elsewhere in Syria.

AMOS: In some ways. This town has a history of support from the Muslim Brotherhood. And 30 years ago, the Brotherhood challenged the government of Hafez al-Assad. He's the father of the current president. His response stands as the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people. That crackdown killed reportedly between 10,000 and 30,000 people. Jisr al-Shughour was part of that crackdown, as was the town of Hama. Now, Hama has become the symbol of the crackdown.

Up until now, the Syrian government appears to have stopped short of committing another Hama. But this week appears to be a major escalation in Jisr al-Shughour and also in Hama, where there were also very high casualties on Friday.

MONTAGNE: So can we expect - given this town's history, can we expect that the government will launch a major offensive?

AMOS: You know, an activist I talked to last night said, look, the Syrian message to this town is you didn't learn your lesson in 1982. The Syrian interior minister all by announced an offensive. Activists in the town are urging everyone to head for the Turkish border. Communications there are severely disrupted. The Internet has been shut down.

Those who do get through say families are packing up. The streets there are barricaded. So I think that we can expect a major military operation in that town in the coming days.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly, some reports have fighting between Syrian troops and army defectors. Is that a significant aspect of this?

AMOS: If it can be confirmed, yes. But it's really impossible to tell. It's Syrian activists who are saying that there were some defections, that's why there was such a heavy death toll among the security forces. They're fighting among themselves.

But no matter what, Renee, this is an escalation. This is a violent shift in what has up until now been a relatively peaceful and a disciplined protest movement. This was to use the Egypt and Tunisia model.

Peaceful, peaceful has been the chant, even in the face of massive retaliations. But it appears that the people in Jisr al-Shughour have decided that they are going to fight back.

MONTAGNE: Deb, thanks very much.

AMOS: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: We've been talking with NPR's Deborah Amos, who's been following events in Syria from Beirut.

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