The Syrian town of Jisr al-Shughour was besieged by columns of government tanks as the army massed for what is feared will be an all-out assault on residents it claims killed more than 120 security force members over the weekend.
By nightfall on Tuesday, most inhabitants had fled to nearby Turkey before the expected sharp escalation in a three-month uprising that has pitched largely unarmed demonstrators against a regime using increasingly lethal force to suppress the gravest threat to its 40-year rule.
Jisr al-Shughour, a town of 41 000 people, was largely abandoned. The hospital stood empty and the intelligence headquarters, the scene of an uprising on Sunday, was now a looted and empty shell, according to three men who stayed behind.
Human rights activists in Damascus said 59 civilians were confirmed killed. However, they feared the final number was likely to be more than 100.
The imminent operation has stirred memories of an infamous assault on the town of Hama 29 years ago, in which tens of thousands of residents were killed by former president Hafez al-Assad after they launched a failed challenge to his authority.
Assad’s son, President Bashar al-Assad, now faces a more serious threat, with sustained protests in many Syrian towns and cities that are steadily eroding the iron rule of the Assad dynasty.
The siege of Jisr al-Shughour appears to mark a turning point in the popular rebellion, inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. Syrian Information Minister Mohammed al-Shaar insisted on Monday night that residents had taken up arms and turned on security forces.
Exactly what happened is not yet clear, but anecdotal evidence emerging from the town this week suggested that armed clashes took place. One witness told the Guardian that some officers from the security headquarters switched allegiances and were shot by loyalists from inside the building.
“They were killing defecting officers,” said a local speaking by telephone. “People came to defend them and then they had to defend themselves. There was a battle.” The Syrian government refused to acknowledge that any mutiny had occurred. However, it did concede that forces inside the town “lost control for intermittent periods”.
Another government official confirmed that some government weapons were now in the hands of residents. The haul included five tonnes of dynamite, information ministry spokesperson Reem Haddad told the BBC. Shaar said the military would “not stay silent”. “The army will carry out their national duty to restore order,” he said.
Turkish authorities said several hundred refugees had crossed the border, many of them wounded. Several thousand more villagers are thought to have fled south towards Aleppo and east into farmlands. It is not known how many residents stayed behind.
“I know people are waiting for the army,” said one Syrian exile “They are preparing to fight them.” If claims of an armed rebellion are proved, it would be the first time that citizens have taken up weapons in large numbers.
Protests have been taking place at least weekly in many cities, including Damascus. Human rights groups claim that more than 1 000 people have been killed, nearly all of them demonstrators campaigning for democratic reforms.
The weekly death tolls have risen sharply over the past fortnight, putting growing pressure on Assad. Damascus has tried to cast the uprising as a series of clashes with armed gangs backed by foreign powers aiming to topple the government.
The United States has imposed sanctions on Assad and members of his inner circle and there are increasing signs that Europe no longer believes that Assad is a reformer constrained by the society he rules.
The United Nations has stopped short of imposing the security resolutions it has directed at Libya and has ruled out military intervention and Russia has indicated it will veto any UN move to turn the screws on its long-term ally.
Analysts in Damascus said they feared the government was willing to push the country into a violent struggle as it tries to cling to power. Diplomats in Beirut said the regime was likely to further destabilise neighbouring Lebanon if pressure on it continued to mount. Israel has accused Damascus of orchestrating anti-Israeli protests in the Golan Heights to divert attention from its domestic troubles.
The uprising broke out in mid-March, initially calling for reform but escalating into demands for the toppling of the regime after brutal crackdowns that spread to most major towns and cities.
“Our line is that protesters either go out peacefully, or they don’t go out at all,” said a religious man in Damascus who is supporting the protests. —