BEIRUT — Armed men attacked Syrian security forces in a tense northern city on Monday, Syrian officials said, and 120 policemen and security forces were killed in a region where the army has carried out days of deadly assaults on protesters calling for the end of President Bashar Assad's rule. The government vowed to respond "decisively," setting the stage for a new crackdown.
Communications were cut to the area around Jisr al-Shughour on Monday and the details of the attack were impossible to verify, but there have been unconfirmed reports in the past by residents and activists of Syrians fighting back against security forces and even mutinous troops.
Adnan Mahmoud, the chief government spokesman, acknowledged that Syrian forces had lost control of some areas for "intermittent periods of time" and promised that the army would restore security in the area.
"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.
The government's response set the stage for an even stronger crackdown against a popular uprising that began in mid-March and poses a potent threat to the 40-year regime of the Assad family. The possibility of a mutiny would show new cracks in a rule that has held out through weekly protests of thousands of people.
State television added the armed groups carried out a "real massacre," mutilating some bodies and throwing others in the Orontes River.
Jisr al-Shughour, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the Turkish border, has been the latest focus of Syria's military, whose nationwide crackdown on the revolt has left more than 1,200 Syrians dead, activists say. The town was a stronghold of the country's banned Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. Human rights groups said at least 42 civilians have been killed there since Saturday.
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, when it was a stronghold of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, with a reported 70 people killed.
Assad's decision to allow pro-Palestinian protesters to storm the Israeli border twice in recent weeks indicates he may be trying to deflect focus from a serious crisis at home, and possibly divert international attention from a new crackdown. State television broadly carried Sunday's protest at the Golan Heights to the south frontier, which left as many as 23 people dead in fighting with Israeli forces, but it has not carried any footage of the protest, crackdown or ambush at the northern edge of Syria.
Monday's state television 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.
The report said the armed groups were hiding in homes and firing at security forces and civilians alike, using residents as human shields.
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.
Details of the operations in Jisr al-Shughour and nearby Khan Sheikhoun have been sketchy and attempts to reach residents of the town were unsuccessful.
Human rights activist Mustafa Osso cast doubt on the government accounts.
"The protesters have so far been peaceful and unarmed," he said. Osso said there were unconfirmed reports of a few army deserters who switched sides and were fighting security forces.
Ahead of Monday's report, another activist said gunmen had successfully kept security forces out of the area, but he had no details. Fearing retaliation, the activist requested anonymity.
Amnesty International criticized Syria's "brutal treatment of protesters" and called on the UN 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.