Syrian forces put down mutiny to retake town in 'hostile' province

Under the rattle of heavy gunfire and loud explosions, Syrian troops yesterday regained control of the north-western town of Jisr al-Shughour, clashing with mutinous soldiers whose decision to side with armed protesters posed a potent threat to the authoritarian regime.

Backed by helicopter gunship 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 al-Assad, planted dynamite at the town entrances.

Troops yesterday removed 10 uniformed bodies from a mass grave in front of the Military Police building. At least four of the bodies were beheaded or struck on the head with an axe.

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Syria's government has said 500 members of the security forces have died, including 120 last week in Jisr al-Shughour. More than 1,400 Syrians have died and some 10,000 have been detained in the government crackdown since mid-March.

President al-Assad has made some concessions, but thousands of people demonstrating against his rule say they will not stop until he leaves power. The mutiny in Idlib province, and the willingness of some residents to stay behind and fight, was a major departure from what had been a largely peaceful protest movement.

A resident who fled yesterday said the army shelled Jisr al-Shughour, then tanks and other heavy armour rolled in from two directions.

As the troops advanced, he said, they fought about 60 army defectors, whose fate was unknown. He said about 200 unarmed men who were guarding the town are believed to have been either killed or detained.

Residents who emerged from their homes yesterday said they were suffering before the government troops came. They spoke in the presence of government officials accompanying journalists.

"Gunmen were intimidating us. They told us, 'The army is coming to kill you and you have to flee the area,"' said Zeina Salloum, 37, after coming out of her home to welcome troops.

Syria-based human rights activist Mustafa Osso said the advancing troops, believed to be an elite unit led by Presdient al-Assad's younger brother Maher, fought hundreds of army defectors from the area. "This is the biggest and most dangerous wave of defections," Osso said.

The province has a history of hostility to the regime. Idlib's Muslim Brotherhood population rose up against al-Assad's father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, in the late 1970s.