- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 7, 2011

BEIRUT — Mutinous Syrian soldiers joined forces with protesters after days of crackdowns in a tense northern region, apparently killing dozens of officers and security guards, residents and activists said Tuesday.

The details of what happened in Jisr al-Shughour remain murky. If confirmed, the mutiny would be an extraordinary crack in the regime, whose 40-year grip on the country is eroding weekly by thousands of protesters calling for the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

The government said 120 security forces died after “armed groups” attacked in Jisr al-Shughour, but it 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 Mr. Assad has left more than 1,300 Syrians dead, activists said. A resident said tensions began last week, with snipers and security forces firing repeatedly on peaceful protests and then funerals, killing about 30 people.

The resident said several soldiers ultimately defected because of anger over the thuggish behavior of pro-government gunmen known as “shabiha,” a fearsome name that some believe has roots in the Arabic word for “ghost.”

The resident, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals, said the gunmen were terrorizing residents and trying to stir up sectarian tensions.

Jisr al-Shughour is predominantly Sunni, but Alawite and Christian villages are in the area.

“There was heavy gunfire and very loud explosions from across the river on Saturday and Sunday,” he said, adding that he could not see what was happening from where he lives.

“We heard there were massacres, bodies thrown in the river.”

An alleged army deserter, a man who identified himself as Lt. Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, appeared on the Al-Jazeera television network Tuesday and called on other officers to protect protesters against the regime.

“Remember your duties,” added Lt. Tlass, who shares a last name with a former defense minister and said he was from the town of Rastan.

The name Tlass is common among Syrian officers; Rastan — which also has come under deadly government bombardment in recent days — is their hometown.

France said the latest events in Syria showed Mr. 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 12 miles away, fearing retaliation from a regime known for ruthlessly crushing dissent.

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