Syrian opposition leaders were bracing Tuesday for a major military crackdown in a northern border town in retaliation for what the government said was an ambush by armed gunmen that killed 120 security troops.
The government has vowed to respond "decisively" to Monday's alleged attack in Jisr al-Shughour on the border with Turkey. NPR's Deborah Amos said activists reported that many residents were fleeing the town of about 50,000 in anticipation of a brutal response.
"Some are heading to the border about 10 miles away. Many of those people are wounded," Amos said.
Although communications were disrupted to the area around Jisr al-Shughour, those who did manage to reach people inside the city said families were packing up and that the streets were barricaded, Amos said.
"So I think we can expect a major military operation in that town in the coming days," she said, adding, "Syria could be heading for a dangerous new phase of this uprising and it could lead to a civil war."
Relatives of family members in the town confirmed that a major clash between armed protesters and security forces took place Monday, but opposition activists were skeptical of the official death toll, saying authorities were looking for a pretext to move against anti-government activists.
Adnan Mahmoud, the chief government spokesman, acknowledged that Syrian forces had lost control of some areas for "intermittent periods of time" and said residents had appealed to the army to do what was necessary to restore security.
"We will deal strongly and decisively, and according to the law, and we will not be silent about any armed attack that targets the security of the state and its citizens," said Interior Minister Ibrahim Shaar.
Syria is determined to crush an uprising against President Bashar Assad. Human rights groups estimated that more than 1,300 have been killed since the revolt began in mid-March.
State TV said Monday that the armed groups carried out a "real massacre" in Jisr al-Shughour, mutilating some bodies and throwing others in the Orontes River. The report said the officers were ambushed as they responded to calls from residents for protection from the armed groups. It said 20 policemen were initially killed, and then the groups blew up a post office and attacked a security post, killing other forces.
State television also said armed groups were hiding in homes and firing at security forces and civilians alike in Jisr al-Shughour, using residents as human shields.
The substance of the TV reports could not be independently confirmed. The Syrian government has severely restricted the media and expelled foreign reporters, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events.
A resident of the area who spoke from a nearby village where he fled days ago scoffed at reports of armed resistance.
"Since the 80s, residents of Jisr al-Shughour are banned from possessing any kind of weapons, even a hunting rifle," he told The Associated Press. "So how can there be armed resistance?"
Some activists said there was a mutiny, with a few soldiers switching sides and defending themselves against attacking security forces. Other reports said many Syrians took up arms to defend themselves.
Human rights activist Mustafa Osso told the AP that there were unconfirmed reports that a few soldiers had switched sides, but that the mutiny was limited and "does not pose a threat to the unity of the army yet."
"The protesters have so far been peaceful and unarmed," Osso said.
Before Monday's killings, the government and some human rights groups have said more than 160 soldiers and security forces had died in the uprising. The latest deaths marked by far the deadliest single strike against them. Human rights groups said at least 42 civilians have been killed there since Saturday.
Jisr al-Shughour was a stronghold of the country's banned Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Syria's government has a history of violent retaliation against dissent, including a three-week bombing campaign against the city of Hama that crushed an uprising there in 1982. Jisr al-Shughour itself came under government shelling in 1980, which reportedly killed 70 people.
Amnesty International has criticized Syria's "brutal treatment of protesters" during the rebellion and called on the U.N. Security Council to condemn the killings and refer Syria to the International Criminal Court.
"Those responsible for the brutal crackdown of pro-reform protesters must no longer be allowed to get away with murder," Philip Luther, Amnesty's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement Monday.
NPR's Deborah Amos reported from Beirut for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.