Activists and human rights groups said the number was almost certainly an exaggeration and was likely to be used as a pretext for an even harsher crackdown on the protest movement. Accounts from witnesses suggested that some form of violent confrontation had occurred, although there was no independent confirmation of the details or death toll.
The state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency said the government was dispatching reinforcements to the area after the killings. It blamed the attacks on “armed gangs,” a phrase the government often uses to describe the almost overwhelmingly peaceful protest movement that has emerged in recent weeks to present the Syrian regime with the biggest challenge to its survival in three decades.
Jisr al-Shughour, which is near Syria’s border with Turkey, has become the latest focus of a harsh government campaign in response to the 11-week-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Some Syrian activists said they believed the Syrian government was using the episode to justify even harsher measures against the town at a time when the United States is reported to be stepping up an effort to seek tougher sanctions against Syria at the United Nations.
“The regime is determined to use more violence, and it is scared of growing international pressure,” said Wissam Tarif of the human rights group Insan. “So the regime strategy is to portray this as a violent rebellion.”
Some Syrian activists who were interviewed by telephone confirmed that some residents of the town had taken up arms to defend themselves. A human rights activist outside the country said that he had spoken to people who told him that a swath of villages around Jisr al-Shughour is now outside government control.
“It is something not like the protests we have seen before,” said the activist, who insisted that he not be named because of the sensitivity of the subject. “Something very sad is happening, and it is against the spirit of the peaceful protests.’’
The Syrian news agency said that soldiers had been killed in several attacks, including an ambush, a bombing attack and a storming of security posts. Some Syrian activists disputed the government’s version of events, and although those details given by officials could not be verified, it appeared that at least some protesters did fight back.
A witness in Jisr al-Shughour said that several Syrian soldiers had been killed by protesters who took up arms to defend themselves against an onslaught of attacks by tanks and warplanes. He said the killings had taken place Sunday, when Syrian troops staged a major offensive against the town, which was repelled by armed protesters.