Syrian troops head to 'massacre' site

120 policemen killed in the town of Jisr al-Shughur

DAMASCUS - Dissidents warned Tuesday of a harsh backlash as troop reinforcements headed to northwestern Syria after the authorities said 120 policemen had been massacred in the town of Jisr al-Shughur.
The Syrian Revolution 2011, a Facebook group spurring protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called for "Tuesday of resurrection" rallies and appealed to the army to protect civilians against regime agents.
"Thirteen military vehicles are heading to Jisr al-Shughur," where the alleged massacre took place and which has been the focus of military operations since Saturday, an activist in the town said by telephone.
He said the convoy had left from Syria's second city of Aleppo and that "helicopters overflew the town all night long."
State television said on Monday the policemen were killed by "armed gangs" who were "committing a real massacre," had "mutilated bodies and thrown others into the Assi river," and burnt public buildings.
It said a total of 120 police were killed, including 80 at Jisr al-Shughur's security headquarters, without specifying when.
But two activists who spoke by telephone to AFP in Nicosia spoke of a mutiny at a local security headquarters on Monday, where shooting was heard the day before.
"I think they executed policemen who refused to open fire on demonstrators. There was a mutiny in the security service," one said.
The other said that "shooting followed by an explosion was heard in the military HQ, apparently after a mutiny."
A statement on Facebook -- signed "residents of Jisr al-Shughur" -- also said "the deaths among soldiers and police were the consequence of defections in the army" and denied state media claims of armed gangs in their region.
Syria's al-Watan newspaper said a "security operation" will be launched in Jisr al-Shughur while Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim al-Shaar warned that the authorities would hit back.
"The state will act firmly, with force and in line with the law. It will not stay arms folded in the face of armed attacks on the security of the homeland," Shaar said in a statement read on television.
Foreign journalists are barred from travelling around Syria, making it difficult to report on the unrest and verify government and witness accounts of the violence.
Jisr al-Shughur was a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s and borders Turkey.
A Turkish diplomat said in Ankara on Tuesday that one person died from gunshot wounds as 41 refugees fleeing the unrest crossed into Turkey over the weekend.
Around 20 had arrived with injuries and were treated in Turkey, the source said.
"Our revolution is peaceful, we want freedom, dignity and life. We do not endorse any foreign party or organisation," the Syrian Revolution 2011 Facebook group wrote.
"We do not call to battle and refuse to bear arms against our brothers in the Syrian army. We call on them to protect us and defend us against the shootings by agents" of the regime.
It advised pro-democracy activists in areas facing a crackdown by security forces and "gangs of the regimes" -- especially in the northern Idlib province -- to parry potential assaults by "burning tyres" and "blocking roads with stones and wood."
Syria's opposition movement keeps swelling despite the regime's repressive measures which have left more than 1,100 people dead, according to rights groups, and sparked worldwide condemnation and sanctions against key regime figures, including the president.
"President Assad is losing legitimacy and should reform or step aside," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the British parliament on Tuesday.
He added that London was seeking support for a draft UN Security Council resolution "condemning the repression in Syria."
Western powers stepped up moves for Security Council vote, even though Russia and China remained strongly opposed.
France, Britain and the United States were considering pressing for a vote by the 15-member Security Council on a resolution that could embarrass Russia and China by forcing them into a veto.
The current draft, drawn up by France, Britain, Germany and Portugal, condemns the crackdown by Assad's regime and warns that the violence could constitute crimes against humanity.
Assad has responded to the opposition movement by lifting emergency laws, creating a commission on political parties and granting a general amnesty, but security forces continue to pound protest hubs.
Meanwhile, Syrian political blogger Amina Abdullah, who rose to fame through blogs pegged on the pro-reform movement, has been detained, a family member wrote on her website Tuesday.
Rights groups say more than 1,100 civilians have been killed and at least 10,000 arrested in Syria since anti-regime protests erupted in mid-March.
Damascus blames the unrest on "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.