At least 30 Syrian soldiers have been killed and dozens wounded on Saturday in clashes with deserters in the flashpoint cities of Idlib and Homs, Al Arabiya TV reported, quoting activist sources.
Earlier, a statement from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 20 soldiers perished on Saturday and 53 were wounded in clashes “between the regular army and presumed deserters in the Baba Amro district of Homs.”
In Idlib, the Observatory said 10 security agents and an army deserter were killed when a bus was ambushed.
The bus was transporting the security agents between the villages of al-Habit and Kafrnabuda in Idlib, close to the Turkish border, when it was ambushed “by armed men, probably deserters,” the Britain-based watchdog said.
A defecting army officer who has taken refuge in Turkey, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, claimed in July to have established an opposition armed force called the ‘Syrian Free Army” comprising military defectors but its strength and numbers are unknown.
Activists and residents said Syrian forces shot dead 40 civilians on Friday when they fired on demonstrators calling for international protection from Assad’s crackdown.
One activist group said fierce fighting broke out in Homs on Friday night between dozens of army deserters and forces loyal to Assad. Seventeen soldiers were killed when the defectors attacked two security posts in the city, it said.
The report by the British-based Syrian Organization for Human Rights highlights the emerging element of armed insurgency alongside mainly peaceful street protests demanding an end to 41 years of Assad family rule.
The United Nations says 3,000 people, including nearly 200 children, have been killed in the unrest. Since the start of protests in March, Syrian authorities have blamed the violence on gunmen they say have killed 1,100 soldiers and police.
Syria has barred most international media, making it hard to verify accounts from activists and authorities.
But the resilience of the protesters, the determination of authorities to crush dissent and the growing ranks of defectors have combined to make Syria’s turmoil one of the most intractable confrontations of this year’s Arab uprisings.
Friday’s violence prompted fresh condemnation from the foreign ministers of the 22-strong Arab League which called on member state Syria to stop the deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
“The Arab ministerial committee expressed its rejection of the continued killings of civilians in Syria and expressed its hope that the Syrian government will take the necessary measures to protect them,” they said.
The committee “expressed the hope that the Syrian government would take action to protect civilians”. Arab ministers are due to meet Syrian officials on Sunday in Qatar to press for dialogue between the government and opposition.
A source at Syria’s Foreign Ministry, quoted by state media, said the Arab League statement was “based on media lies” and urged the committee to “help restore stability in Syria instead of stirring sedition.”
Opposition figures have said they could not sit down for talks with the government unless there was a halt to the killing of protesters, disappearances and mass arrests.
“Three days left, and we have 220 martyrs and counting,” read a placard carried by protesters near Damascus on Friday.
“Yes to dialogue − after the downfall of the regime,” said another in Homs.
Across the country, demonstrators called for international protection. “A no-fly zone is a legitimate demand for Homs,” read banners in the Khalidiya district of Homs.
NATO air forces played a central role in the overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, but the Western alliance has shown no appetite to intervene in Syria.
Syria’s opposition National Council has called for international protection. It has not explicitly requested military intervention, although street protesters have increasingly voiced that demand.
Assad has not used his air force against protesters and a no-fly zone would have little impact on the crackdown unless, as in Libya, pilots attacked his ground forces and military bases.
The anti-Assad protesters have been energized by Qaddafi’s death last week and activists said the city of Hama saw some of the biggest protests since Assad sent tanks and troops in July to seize it back from opposition control.
Demonstrations were forced into the countryside by the military assault on cities three months ago. They remain widespread but have not matched the size of earlier protests.