Leader of the so-called Syrian Free Army, Col. Riyadh al-Asaad, denied to Al Arabiya the media reports about his arrest by Syrian government forces.
Syrian forces hunted protesters in the central region of Homs as they sought to crush armed resistance that is emerging after six months of protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, Reuters reported.
Monday’s crackdown came a day after Syrian opposition groups met in Istanbul and urged international action to stop what they called indiscriminate killings of civilians by the authorities.
The United States welcomed the development, saying it was encouraged by the opposition’s statements supporting non-violence, and blamed the mounting death toll on the Syrian authorities.
Local activists said a military operation on Monday focused on Talbiseh near Homs, 150 km (94 miles) north of Damascus, after security forces entered the nearby town of Rastan, which lies on the highway between the capital and the northern city of Aleppo.
Meanwhile, the defected Khalid Ibn al-Walid battalion said that it has withdrawn from Rastan for the sake of protecting civilian lives.
Battling protesters and army deserters
For about a week, tank- and helicopter-backed troops have battled protesters and army deserters in Rastan, in the most sustained fighting since Syria’s uprising began in March. The official Syrian news agency said on Saturday government forces had regained control of the town.
“Tank fire targeted Talbiseh this morning and communications remain cut. The town was key in supplying Rastan and now it is being punished for that,” one activist said. “House to house arrests are continuing in the area for the second day.”
Armed protesters, mostly in the central Homs region and the northwestern province of Idlib, have been so far outgunned.
Activists said dozens of villagers had been arrested in Talbiseh in the past 48 hours and there were deaths and casualties from the raids.
Information also was scarce from Rastan, which has been sealed off since tanks moved in at the weekend. Activists said hundreds of people were believed to have been arrested and held in schools and factories in the town.
Activists told The Associated Press that Syrian troops, going house to house, have detained more than 3,000 people in the past three days in Rastan, which saw some of the worst fighting of the 6-month-old uprising recently.
The activist group Local Coordination Committees said fighting in the town has now stopped after the military operation that left dozens dead. The group and a Rastan-based activist confirmed about 3,000 in the town of 70,000 had been detained. The activist told AP by telephone that the detainees are being held at a cement factory, as well as some schools and the Sports Club, a massive, four-story compound.
“Ten of my relatives have been detained,” said the activist, who asked that he be identified only by his first name Hassan for fear of retaliation. He said he was speaking from hiding in Rastan.
Events on the ground are difficult to verify as the authorities have expelled independent journalists from the country or banned them from working, although some foreign reporters have been allowed to visit.
While some Assad opponents have taken up arms, others are still staging demonstrations against his 11-year rule. Night protests erupted on Sunday in several districts of Homs, where a crowd in the Khalidiya district shouted, “Homs is free.”
Assad, 46, who succeeded his father in 2000, blames the violence on foreign-backed armed gangs. His officials say 700 police and soldiers have died, as well as 700 “mutineers.”
Surge in sectarian killings
A surge in sectarian killings has heightened tensions in the city. The state news agency said “armed terrorist groups” killed five people there on Monday. Residents said two bodies had turned up in the city's Sunni Qarabid neighborhood.
Homs has a mixed population, with a few Alawite neighborhoods inhabited by members of Assad’s minority sect, alongside others populated by majority Sunni Muslims.
Underlining the turn towards violence, the authorities said Sariya Hassoun, the son of Mufti Ahmad Hassoun, Syria’s state-appointed top cleric, was assassinated in Idlib on Sunday.
It was the first attack on the state-backed Sunni clergy who have backed Assad for decades, despite widespread Sunni resentment at Alawite dominance.
As Syria’s struggle has grown bloodier, claiming at least 2,700 lives so far, according to a U.N. count, demonstrators have begun to demand some form of international protection that stops short of Libya-style Western military intervention.
A statement issued in Istanbul on Sunday by a newly formed opposition National Council rejected intervention that “compromises Syria's sovereignty,” but said the outside world had a humanitarian obligation to protect the Syrian people.
“The Council demands that international governments and organizations meet their responsibility to support the Syrian people, protect them and stop the crimes and gross human rights violations being committed by the current illegitimate regime.”
The council said the uprising must remain peaceful but that military assaults, torture and mass arrests were driving Syria “to the edge of civil war and inviting foreign interference.”
It also said the Muslim Brotherhood, the Damascus Declaration -- which groups established opposition figures -- and grassroots activists had all joined the Council.