Syrian army attacks town of Jisr al-Shughour

Syrian army soldiers shout slogans in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, as they enter a village near the town of Jisr al-Shughour, north of Damascus, Syria, Friday, June 10, 2011.
AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi

BEIRUT — Under the rattle of heavy gunfire and loud explosions, Syrian army troops and tanks attacked a restive northwestern city from two sides Sunday, extending the crackdown on a region that is historically hostile to the authoritarian regime.

The streets of Jisr al-Shughour were deserted at midday — residents said nearly everyone had fled in recent days — and there were piles of debris. Army units entered after dismantling explosives planted on roads and bridges, Syria's state-run news agency SANA said, reporting "heavy" clashes as troops moved in.

Residents of Jisr al-Shughour who fled to Turkey said thousands of young men, including soldiers and police who switched sides and joined the revolt against President Bashar Assad, had armed themselves and planted dynamite at the town entrances.

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The Local Coordination Committees, which documents Syrian anti-government protests, said Jisr al-Shughour was attacked from the south and east by troops in about 200 vehicles, including tanks. It said blasts were heard as helicopters clattered overhead.

The region near Turkey's border is posing the biggest challenge yet to President Bashar Assad's struggle to crush the anti-government revolt calling for an end to his family's 40-year regime. Thousands of Syrians in the region have crossed into Turkey in recent days, taking sanctuary in refugee camps.

"Almost all but the young man have fled either to other towns or villages in Syria or to Turkey," said a Syrian teen, who identified himself as Aziz and was across the border in Turkey. "Only the young remained behind and have armed themselves with AK-47 Kalashnikovs, G-3 rifles or hand guns."

Aziz, an 18-year-old who spoke to The Associated Press late Saturday, said his family pulled him out of school on Wednesday and they crossed into Turkey.

Syrian forces told an Associated Press reporter invited to travel with them to Jisr al-Shughour that they were arresting "gunmen" in the largely evacuated city, normally home to about 40,000 people. State television reported one soldier had died and four were wounded in Sunday's attack.

In Jisr al-Shughour on Sunday, government soldiers took the AP reporter to the National Hospital where they saw at least two dead bodies. The hospital was damaged, many of its windows shattered. A burned ambulance was parked outside.

Residents who emerged from their homes Sunday said they were suffering before the troops came. They spoke in the presence of military officers and government officials accompanying the journalists, and it was not clear whether they expressed their views freely. Syrians who speak against the government face retribution and arrest — activists say some 10,000 people have been detained in the 12-week revolt against the regime.

"Gunmen were intimidating us. They told us 'the army is coming to kill you and you have to flee the area,"' said Zeina Salloum, 37, after coming out of her home to welcome advancing troops.

The Syrian government has said the town was under the control of "armed gangs" who killed 120 security forces last week. Activists said the victims were killed when soldiers and police mutinied.

Human rights groups say more than 1,400 people nationwide have died in the government crackdown since the uprising erupted in southern Syria 12 weeks ago.

Syria-based human rights activist Mustafa Osso said advancing troops, using tanks, artillery and helicopters gunships, were fighting against hundreds of army defectors from the area. "This is the biggest and most dangerous wave of defections" since an uprising against Assad's regime began in mid-March, Osso said.

There have been smaller instances of defections in the southern city of Daraa and the western town of Talkalakh, where the military conducted operations in recent weeks.

Osso said the army is conducting operations in three areas of Idlib province including the towns of Maaret al-Numan, Jisr al-Shughour, and the nearby Jabal al-Zawiya, a mountain that includes several villages.

Idlib's Muslim Brotherhood population rose up against Assad's father, the late president Hafez Assad, in the late 1970s. Jisr al-Shughour itself came under heavy government bombardment in 1980, with a reported 70 people killed. Residents say the numbers were much higher.

The events proved a prelude to a 1982 three-week bombing campaign against the city of Hama that crushed a Sunni uprising there, killing 10,000 to 25,000 people, according to Amnesty International estimates.