As many as fourteen people have been killed by the fire of security forces on Wednesday across Syria, activists told Al Arabiya.
Syrian troops fought army deserters near a southern town overnight following the killing of at least three protesters demonstrating against the arrest of a popular cleric, residents and activists said on Wednesday.
In the latest desertions among conscripts opposed to a military crackdown against months of pro-democracy protests, at least 20 soldiers left their outposts around the town of Hirak, 80 km (50 miles) south of Damascus and clashed with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, they said.
“I saw the bodies of three protesters in the morgue. An exchange of rifle and machinegun fire is going on now between deserters and the army just west of Hirak,” said one of the residents, who gave his name as Mohammed.
The fighting came as an armored offensive against mostly old districts in the central city of Homs entered a third day. The city has been the scene of regular anti-government protests, according to Reuters.
At least 32 people have been killed in the last 48 hours in Sunni districts of the city of one million people, where armed inhabitants and defectors battled government forces, residents said.
Activists also reported that thousands of elite Republican Guards and Fourth Division troops, under the command of Assad’s brother Maher, combed eastern suburbs of Damascus in a large operation to seize army defectors and activists.
Foreign journalists are largely banned from Syria, making independent confirmation of reported events difficult.
Syrian authorities blame “armed terrorist groups” for the unrest and say 1,100 police and soldiers have been killed. The United Nations says Assad’s crackdown has killed 3,000 people, including 187 children.
Crimes against humanity
The Syrian League for the Defense of Human Rights blamed Assad for the deadly repression of dissent and said he should be “tried for crimes against humanity,” in a statement received by AFP in Nicosia.
The watchdog said 3,482 people, including 212 children and 99 women, have been killed since mid-March and 4,232 wounded, adding that more than 191 deaths “were the result of torture in detention centers.”
Assad has sent troops and tanks into restive cities and towns to put down the unrest, but protests have persisted with several thousand army defectors from within the mainly Sunni Muslim rank-and-file army now challenging his rule.
Diplomats and military analysts say moves by Assad, of the minority Alawite sect, to crush the protest movement inspired by the “Arab Spring” that overthrew veteran leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has fuelled army defections.
Several officers have recently announced their defection, although the bulk of desertions have been Sunni conscripts who usually man roadblocks and form the outer layer of military and secret police rings around restless cities and towns. The officer corps of Syria’s army is composed mainly of members of the Alawite community.
Hours before the defections in Hirak, security police had fired at demonstrators protesting against the arrest of Sheikh Wasjih al-Qaddah, imam of the main Abu Bakr mosque, venue of regular protests demanding the removal of Assad, residents said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four loyalist soldiers were killed in the province of Idlib near the border with Turkey in northwest Syria.
Turkey holds talks with SNC
In Ankara, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu received Syrian opposition leaders for their first formal talks and urged them to forge a united front in pursuit of a peaceful transition from Assad’s iron-fisted rule, a Turkish diplomat said.
“Turkey advised the (Syrian National Council) to be unified and work together to proceed towards democratic and peaceful transition in Syria ... because the current situation cannot be sustained,” the diplomat said, according to AFP.
The SNC, the largest and most representative Syrian opposition grouping, was founded in Istanbul at the end of August and numbers 140 members, half of them living in Syria.
Ankara had developed close ties with Assad’s regime over the past decade but has expressed growing frustration with the president's failure to address popular demands for reform.
“We will be free despite you, Assad”
In Homs, a YouTube video purportedly showed a broken down tank being towed by troops from the Bab Sbaa neighborhood while residents shouted “We will be free despite you, Assad” and “the traitor is the one who kills his own people.”
The operation in Homs was preceded by an offensive on the nearby town of Rastan, traditionally a recruiting ground for Sunni conscripts. Opposition sources said 100 insurgents and defectors were killed with heavy casualties among loyalist troops. The authorities said they lost seven troops.
The Alawites, who are an offshoot of Shiite Islam, expanded their hold on the Syrian state, the military and secret police after Assad’s father, the late Hafez al-Assad, took office in a 1970 coup.
“Attrition is increasing within army ranks and beginning to form a problem for Assad. The geographical area of the protests is large and the regime is being forced to use Sunni soldiers to back up core forces,” a senior European diplomat in Damascus said, according to Reuters.
“It is taking longer and longer for loyalist forces to control rebel areas. Large areas of Idlib are virtually out of control and it took them 10 days to regain a small town like Rastan,” he said.
The emergence of armed resistance has presented a problem for the Syrian opposition, which formed a National Council in Istanbul last month and pledged to seek international protection to stop the killing of civilians while calling for the uprising to remain peaceful.