The Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour is in the eye of the storm of a three month protest movement. Syrian security forces used armed helicopters to quell protests there on Friday, according to activists. By Monday, the Syrian government was reporting that 120 members of the security police had been killed by "armed gangs" and was vowing to mount a major military operation int he town.
The details of the fight in Jisr al-Shughour, which is near the Turkish border, remain unclear. There are reports that some protesters took up weapons. Other reports say Syrian security forces turned on each other. Information is sketchy because the government has shut down the internet and is doing its best to block communications.
But earlier today, NPR got a phone call through to the hospital there and spoke with an activist. This is an English transcript of what he said:
"I'm (in) Jisr al-Shughour at the National Hospital. It has been completely evacuated. We have two corpses in the freezer; we tried delivering them to their families, but there is no one left in the city. Only about 200 young men stayed behind to protect the city from acts of robbery and vandalism. This city of 75,000 residents is completely empty. It's a city of ghosts in every possible interpretation of the term. They fled north and west towards the Turkish border; not inside Turkey, just on the border.
"We have prior experience with this. In the 1980s there was a massacre in Jisr al-Shughour where more than 600 people died. The families of Jisr al-Shughour have bad memories of the last time the army was here, so they were all afraid and they fled. The Syrian security apparatuses announced that there are armed gangs here. I say if that's the case, allow foreign journalists to come and see those gangs for themselves. The foreign press, not the local ones. The Syrian media [are] an accomplice in our oppression. [They are] an instrument of murder. In my opinion, after we depose the regime we have to put them on trial, not as traitors but as perpetrators of crimes against humanity.
"There's nothing going on now. We don't know what's going to happen. We're waiting. The Minister of Interior and the Minister of Information threatened that they are going to strike Jisr very harshly. And that they will conduct massive military operations. So we are expecting these operations. That's why we did mass evacuations of the city. The water has been polluted, we don't know the source. The security forces destroyed a few cellphone towers, that's why the [connection] is this bad.
"[On] Sunday, two helicopters were flying in the skies of Jisr al-Shugour. One was only on reconnaissance, but the other was shooting randomly from its machine guns. There were helicopters in Freike too. They shot at the protesters directly and killed two. Yesterday a third died from his injuries. Yesterday there was a reconnaissance helicopter flying in the skies of Jisr al-Shughour after 1 a.m. It didn't shoot. Just took photos."
At that point, the sound quality made continuing the conversation impossible. Here's a very short soundbite of the activist's voice (NPR is not reporting his name out of concern for his safety):
A voice from Jisr al Shughour
[NPR's Deborah Amos has been monitoring the situation in Syria from Beirut. She also filed the following report for our Newscast desk:]
Deborah Amos on the situation in Jisr al Shughour