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Syrian military 'gunned down in border attack'

Syrian activists said they feared a bloody escalation in violence last night after the Baathist regime claimed 120 members of the security forces had been gunned down by armed groups in a town near the Turkish border.

A report on Syrian state television claimed the security men had died after a clash in Jisr al-Shughour, a north-western town about 12 miles from Turkey.

Since Saturday, the town has been in the grip of a deadly spiral of violence between the military and protesters, but the claims by state TV - which have been met with scepticism by activists and Syrian exiles - would mark a grave turn of events.

Television reports said armed groups had torched government buildings and were using machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenades to battle with civilians and security groups.

"The gunmen mutilated some of the bodies and threw some into the river. The people are urging the army to intervene speedily," it said.

Yet the claims were met with widespread disbelief. "To have killed 120 members of the security forces in Syria you would need an army," said Housam Mohammad, a Syrian journalist who lives in the UK.

Mr Mohammad, who attended a conference of Syrian exiles in Turkey last week, added that Jisr al-Shughour is known in Syria as a former stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement which was crushed during the 1982 Hama massacre.

He said he was worried the situation would be used by President Bashar al-Assad to move against his enemies in the town.

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