Syria: What really happened in Jisr al-Shughour?

The Syrian authorities say more than 120 security personnel have been killed in clashes with armed gangs in the north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour. If confirmed, the violence would represent one of the bloodiest clashes in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

Activist websites have not explained the unprecedented development. Some have suggested dissent within the armed forces, or even a mutiny. The BBC's Jim Muir - reporting from Beirut - says, at the moment, it does look like there is some armed resistance going on, and there are reports the town is bracing for an onslaught by Syrian forces.

Amid conflicting accounts of what really happened - and with no foreign journalists being allowed in to verify the claims - the BBC compares the different versions of events.

Map of Jisr al-Shughour
Official accounts Residents and amateur video Activists and analysts

Syrian state TV breaks the news at 1600 GMT on Monday: "Armed groups in Jisr al-Shughour attacked a police station to which civilians had fled out of fear of these groups, which terrorised citizens... the security forces and policemen. Violent clashes erupted between the police and these groups, which used medium-size firearms, machine-guns, grenades and RPGs."

Abu Nader, a resident of Jisr al-Shughour, denied the government reports: "We don't have any kind of weapons. The soldiers were coming our way, then they were shot in the back by some Syrian security elements. All of the dead were shot in the back or in the back of their heads," he told BBC Arabic.

"There is no armed conflict. Those are peaceful protesters. The only armed part in this uprising is the state"- Wissam Tarif, executive director of Insan, a Syrian human rights group speaking to the BBC's World Today programme.

Soon after, information ministry spokeswoman Reem Haddad tells BBC Newshour:

"This afternoon [Monday] about 40 security officers were ambushed in Jisr al-Shughour by armed groups. And not only that, five tonnes of dynamite were stolen. Now altogether that brings the deaths in Jisr al-Shughour to 120 people in these two days. What [security forces] have been actively trying to do is trying to stop these armed groups from harming the citizens."

Another resident told the Reuters agency that the security forces were in fact killed by gunmen from Jisr al-Shughour: "Some people in some areas have taken up arms. The situation is grave, what is happening is an armed rebellion. I oppose violence from whatever side it comes from."

"The security forces and Shabiha [pro-government militias]... are already storming houses and trying to steal things and to rape women. We know for sure that most of the people in the street believe in the peaceful protest. We are trying to get ourselves more into forming an entity that can defend the revolution," Amir al-Sadeq, from the Syrian Revolution Co-ordinators' Union in Damascus, told the BBC

Syrian state TV later carried interviews with people calling on the army to clear Jisr al-Shughour of armed gangs they said had been terrorising the place: "The armed groups are using weapons and grenades ... the people in Jisr al-Shughour are urging the army to intervene speedily," state TV said.

Early on Tuesday, another account from a resident reached by BBC Arabic: "There are army soldiers who gave themselves up to the civilians, they joined the civilians and the army killed them. I swear to God, that we are all civilians... there are no terrorists in Jisr al-Shughour."

A statement released by an opposition group, Local Co-ordinating Committees in Syria, cited by the New York Times, says that the violence was set off by the defection of soldiers sent to besiege Jisr al-Shughour on Saturday, a number of them seeking "refuge with the citizens" of the town.

Interior Minister Mohammad Ibrahim al-Shaar said authorities would respond firmly to armed attacks and Information Minister Adnan Mahmoud said the army "will carry out their national duty to restore security".

Since the weekend, YouTube has carried footage said to be from the town, showing several dead bodies described as being soldiers killed by security forces for refusing to fire on people. An earlier YouTube video dated 17 May appears to show the town square with a huge message painted on the road saying: "Jisr al-Shughour doesn't want the army to come in."

Fares Braizat, a Middle East analyst, told al-Jazeera that following a massacre in the Jisr al-Shughour area in the 1980s, "the people of this area have a long-standing revenge that they want to take out against the Syrian regime... So if violence escalates to unprecedented levels, I think this is where the regime wants the process to be. I think the regime has for the past weeks been trying to turn this into a sectarian war."

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