The details of what happened in Jisr al-Shughour remain unclear, 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.
The government said 120 troops and police 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.
The town drew the most recent assault by Syria’s military, whose nationwide crackdown on the revolt against Assad has left more than 1,300 Syrians dead, activists say. A resident said tensions began last week with security forces firing repeatedly on peaceful protests and then funerals, killing about 30 people.
The resident said a number of soldiers ultimately defected, angered by the thuggish behaviour of pro-government gunmen known as “shabiha,” a fearsome name some believe has roots in the Arabic word for “ghost”.
The resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the gunmen were terrorising residents and trying to stir up sectarian tensions.
Jisr al-Shughour is predominantly Sunni but there are Alawite and Christian villages in the area. The Alawite minority rules over the Sunni majority in Syria, and the uprising has stirred sectarian tensions.
“There was heavy gunfire and very loud explosions from across the river on Saturday and Sunday,” he said.
“We heard there were massacres, bodies thrown in the river.”
There have been sporadic reports since the uprising began of troops defecting and even reports of military units fighting, but if the government’s toll is confirmed, this would by far be the deadliest mutiny. Assad’s army has always been the regime’s fiercest defender.
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 19km away, fearing retaliation from a regime known for ruthlessly crushing dissent.
The government vowed to respond “decisively” to the violence there.
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.