Syrian mutiny shows cracks in regime

BEIRUT (AP) — A deadly mutiny of Syrian soldiers and loss of control over a tense northern town appeared to show extraordinary cracks in an autocratic regime that has long prided itself on its iron control.

Details about the events in Jisr al-Shughour remained murky on Tuesday. The government said 120 forces were dead, without explaining the enormous loss of life, and acknowledged losing “intermittent” control of the area.

But the reports Tuesday from residents and activists — and the television appearance of a soldier who says he switched sides after his hometown was bombarded — were the clearest sign yet that the weekly protests of thousands of Syrians are eroding President Bashar Assad’s grip.

The foreign minister of France, Syria’s former colonial ruler with whom Assad maintained good relations, said the president had lost his legitimacy to rule. British foreign secretary William Hague said Assad must “reform or step aside.”

Unlike the early days of the rebellion in Libya, Assad has managed to keep his government together. On Tuesday, the network France 24 aired audio it said was of the Syrian ambassador to France issuing a stinging resignation; less than an hour later Syrian state television broadcast different audio of a woman’s voice denying she had quit and threatening to sue the French network.

It was not possible to reconcile the two accounts or contact Ambassador Lamia Shakkour.

Activists and residents of Jisr al-Shughour told The Associated Press that a number of soldiers joined forces with protesters after days of crackdowns in the region, leading to fighting with officers and security guards in which dozens were killed.

The Jisr al-Shughour resident said people were fleeing the area for the Turkish border about 12 miles away, fearing retaliation from a regime known for ruthlessly crushing dissent. The government vowed Monday to respond “decisively” to the violence there.

“People were struck by fear and panic after the government statements last night, it’s clear they are preparing for a major massacre,” he said.

Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian dissident and a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, said the scale of the mutiny was unknown.

Ziadeh said the Syrian army was a strong institution “but in the end, the army is from the people. The outrage over the killings is growing and the longer it goes on the more deserters we’re going to see,” he said.

An alleged army deserter identifying himself as Lt. Abdul-Razzaq Tlass appeared on the Al-Jazeera television network Tuesday, saying he was deserting because of the regime’s “crimes” all over the country. He called on other officers to protect protesters against the regime.

“Remember your duties,” added Tlass, who shares a last name with a former defense minister and said he was from the town of Rastan in central Syria. The name Tlass is common among Syrian officers from Rastan — which has also come under deadly government bombardment in recent days.

Jisr al-Shughour drew the most recent assault by Syria’s military, whose nationwide crackdown on the revolt against Assad has left more than 1,300 Syrians dead, activists say. A resident said tensions began last week with snipers and security forces firing repeatedly on peaceful protests and then funerals, killing around 30 people.

A resident said tensions began last week with snipers and security forces firing repeatedly on peaceful protests and then funerals, killing around 30 people.

The resident said a number of soldiers ultimately defected, angered by the thuggish behavior of pro-government gunmen known as “Shabiha,” a fearsome name that some believe has roots in the Arabic word for “ghost.”


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