In recent days, the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughour has become a key battleground in the Syrian uprising--both physically and for conflicting reports from Syrian activists and Syria's state-run media. Today, Syrian state television is reporting that 120 policemen and security forces (the number used to be 40, then 80, and may still rise) were killed by "hundreds of armed terrorist members" in an ambush and bombing in the town this morning. If the report is true, The New York Times notes, it would mark the deadliest anti-government retaliation yet in Syria's 11-week uprising. It would also suggest that Syria's peaceful protests are turning violent. Yet other accounts suggest it's the government forces doing much of the killing.
The differing accounts from Jisr al-Shughour first surfaced over the weekend, when a resident told Reuters that Syrian forces killed over 30 civilians there after snipers fired on a funeral procession for protesters. Other reports suggested that the regime turned helicopter gunships and armored cars with machine guns on civilians. Ammar Qurabi of the Syrian Human Rights Organization characterized the killings as "an act of revenge by the state for the Friday protests and another attempt to silence a Syrian town through the use of violence." The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) meanwhile, reported that "armed terrorist groups" had attacked state buildings, killing four policemen and wounding 20 others, including civilians (activists also noted that policemen had been killed and the local post office set ablaze by angry mourners).
Fast forward to today's report, in which SANA claims "armed gangs" with machine guns, hand grenades, and pipe bombs attacked buildings, mutilated the bodies of security forces, and used civilians as human shields (the SANA photo above shows weapons allegedly seized from these gangs). Anti-government activists are telling a different story. A post this morning on one anti-government Facebook page describes Jisr al-Shughour as "calm" but mentions some military and police desertions. Syrian rights activist Mustafa Osso similarly tells the AP that the "protesters have so far been peaceful and unarmed," adding that there have been unconfirmed reports of a few army deserters battling security forces.
The Syrian regime has long blamed the uprising on "armed gangs" of Islamic extremists and foreign agents, while activists have long claimed that security forces are attacking unarmed protesters. So why are the reports from Jisr al-Shughour particularly newsworthy? Reuters points out that this is the first time that Syrian officials have reported such a "large-scale confrontation" and the AP adds that protesters may very well be resorting to more violent tactics. "There have been unconfirmed reports in the past by residents and activists of Syrians fighting back against security forces, and of military defections," the AP notes. In an interview with the Times, one Syrian activist expresses concern that Syria's peaceful uprising could grow more violent: "There have been a lot of killings and some people are becoming more extremist. Fear is creating a negative reaction."
Update: Syrian activists in Cyprus tell AFP that what transpired in Jisr al-Shughour today wasn't an ambush by "armed gangs" but rather a mutiny by Syrian security forces after policemen who refused to fire on demonstrators were executed. They said the town was calm on Monday. Indeed, earlier today, Al Jazeera highlighted a grisly amateur video purportedly showing bodies of men killed by military forces after they refused to fire on protesters in the town.