BEIRUT – Armed men attacked Syrian security forces in a tense northern city on Monday, state television said, and 120 policemen and security forces were killed in a region where the army has carried out days of deadly assaults on protesters calling for the end of President Bashar Assad's rule.
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.
Syria's government has a history of violent retaliation against dissent, including a three-week bombing campaign against the city of Hama that crushed an uprising there in 1982. Jisr al-Shughour itself came under government shelling in 1980, when it was a stronghold of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, with a reported 70 people killed.
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 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.
Details of the operations in Jisr al-Shughour and nearby Khan Sheikhoun have been sketchy and attempts to reach residents of the town were unsuccessful.
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.
Ahead of Monday's report, another activist said gunmen had successfully kept security forces out of the area, but he had no details. Fearing retaliation, the activist requested anonymity.