BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian forces fought gunmen in battles that left more than 120 members of the security forces dead, state television said in the first report of large-scale armed clashes in the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
The television said on Monday armed groups set government buildings ablaze in the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour, stole five tonnes of dynamite and were firing at civilians and security forces with machineguns and rocket-propelled grenades.
“The security forces have managed to end a blockade of one of the neighborhoods that was seized by the gunmen for awhile and are now battling them to end the blockade of the other neighborhoods,” the television said.
“The gunmen mutilated some of the bodies and threw some into the river. The people in Jisr al-Shughour are urging the army to intervene speedily,” it said.
Opposition activists earlier said a security operation had been under way in the town since Saturday in which they said at least 37 residents and 10 police had been killed.
But it was impossible to verify the conflicting accounts of the violence from activists and officials as authorities have prevented most international media from operating in Syria.
Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar said authorities would respond firmly to armed attacks and Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said the army, which has so far stayed out of the town, “will carry out their national duty to restore security.”
Rights groups say 1,000 civilians have been killed in the protests which have swept from the southern city of Deraa to the Mediterranean coast and eastern Kurdish regions.
But the ferocity of the crackdown could increase further if the government comes up against an armed insurrection.
Syrian forces crushed an armed Islamist uprising in the city of Hama in 1982 on the orders of Bashar’s father, President Hafez al-Assad, killing up to 30,000 people.
An activist told Reuters that police and members of the security forces in Jisr al-Shughour were killed by gunmen.
“Some people in some areas have taken up arms,” he said.
“The situation is grave, what is happening is an armed rebellion. I oppose violence from whatever side it comes from.”
Residents said violence erupted in Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday when snipers on the roof of the main post office fired at a funeral for six protesters killed the day before.
Angry mourners set fire to the post office, a history teacher in the town called Ahmad said. State television said eight members of the security forces were killed when armed gunmen attacked the post office building.
It said at least 20 security force members were killed in an ambush by “armed gangs,” and 82 were killed in an attack on a security post. It said the overall death toll for security forces was more than 120.
A rebellion in Jisr al-Shughour was crushed by Bashar’s father in 1980 with scores of deaths.
Assad has sent in tanks to crush demonstrations in certain flashpoints.
He also has made some reformist gestures, such as issuing a general amnesty to political prisoners and launching national dialogue, but protesters and opposition figures have dismissed such measures.
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jon Hemming