Under the rattle of heavy gunfire and loud explosions, Syrian army troops and tanks moved into a restive northwestern city from two sides on Sunday, extending the crackdown on a region that is historically hostile to the Damascus regime.
The Local Coordination Committees, which documents Syrian anti-government protests, said Jisr al-Shughour was attacked from the southern and eastern sides by troops in about 200 vehicles, including tanks. It said blasts were heard as helicopters clattered overhead.
The region near Turkey’s border has a history of hostility toward the Syrian regime and is posing the biggest challenge yet to President Bashar Assad’s struggle to crush the anti-government revolt. Thousands of Syrians in the region have crossed into Turkey in recent days, taking sanctuary in refugee camps.
The Syrian government has said the town was under the control of “armed men” who it said killed 120 police officers last week. Activists said the victims were killed when soldiers and police mutinied, turning their weapons on government forces.
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. Many of those who remained behind fled on Sunday, if they could.
The AP reporter said government soldiers took reporters into the town’s National Hospital where they saw at least two dead bodies.
Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said army units entered the area after dismantling explosives planted by gunmen on roads and bridges. It added that “heavy” clashes broke out between the army units and gunmen inside Jisr al-Shughour and areas surrounding it.