BEIRUT — Under the rattle of heavy gunfire and loud explosions, Syrian troops on Sunday regained control of a restive northwestern town, clashing with mutinous soldiers whose decision to side with armed protesters posed a potent threat to the authoritarian regime.
Backed by helicopters and tanks, army units moved in after dismantling explosives planted on roads and bridges leading to Jisr al-Shughour, Syria’s state-run news agency SANA said, reporting “heavy” clashes. Residents who fled to Turkey said thousands of young men, including soldiers and police who switched sides and joined the revolt against President Bashar Assad, had armed themselves and planted dynamite at the town entrances.
Assad has made some concessions, but thousands of people demonstrating against his rule — inspired by protests in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere — say they will not stop until he leaves power. The mutiny in Idlib province, and the apparent willingness of some outgunned residents to stay behind and fight, was a major departure from what had been a largely peaceful protest movement.
More than 1,400 Syrians have died and some 10,000 have been detained in the government crackdown since mid-March, activists say.
Jisr al-Shughour’s streets were deserted at midday — residents said nearly everyone had fled in recent days — and there were piles of debris. Turkey has given sanctuary to more than 5,000 Syrians since the uprising began in mid-March, nearly all of them in the past week from the area around Jisr al-Shughour.
A resident who fled on Sunday said the army shelled Jisr al-Shughour, then tanks and other heavy armour rolled in from two directions.
About 200 unarmed men guarding the town are believed to have been killed or detained.
The witness, who fled to an area near the Turkish border, did not give his name for fear of government reprisals.
After gaining control of the town, Syrian troops showed reporters four bodies, some still in uniform, that were beheaded or struck on the head with an axe. The city’s Military Police building was burned and there were bloodstains in some rooms, which bolstered the reports of a mutiny.