‘Defections’ in Syrian army reported

Reuters reports:

An armored Syrian force surrounded a town near the city of Homs Monday and fired heavy machineguns after the defection of tens of soldiers in the area, activists and residents said.

One woman, 45 year-old Amal Qoraman, was killed and five other people were injured, they said, adding that tens of people were arrested in house to house raids in the town of 40,0000.

Since the demise of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, activists and residents have reported increasing defections among Syrian troops, as well as more intense street protests in a five-month-old uprising against President Bashar al Assad.

Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied army defections have been taking place. They have expelled independent media since the uprising began in March.

Activists say there have been desertions in eastern Deir al-Zor province, northwestern Idlib province, the Homs countryside and the outskirts of Damascus, where security forces fought gunbattles with defectors Sunday.

At least 40 light tanks and armored vehicles, and 20 buses of troops and military intelligence members deployed at dawn at the entrance of Rastan, 20 km (12 miles) north of Homs and began firing heavy machineguns at the town, two residents said.

“The tanks deployed at both banks of the highway, which remained open, and fired long bursts from their machineguns at Rastan,” one of the residents, who gave his name as Raed, told Reuters by phone.

He said defections began in the town when it was stormed by tanks three months ago to crush large street protests against Assad in an assault that killed dozens of civilians.

Security forces killed Monday a former officer who had played a key role in coordinating army defections, activists said.

Mostapha Selim Hezbollah, a former air force officer in his 40s’, was shot dead when his car was ambushed near the town of Kfar Nubul in Idlib province, which borders Turkey, they said.

“It was a targeted assassination. A companion who was with him in the car was badly wounded but we managed to get him to a hospital. The attack happened just before ‘iftar’ (breaking of fast). We don’t know yet if it was security police or troops who fired at them,” one of the activists told Reuters by phone.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain, said five other people were killed earlier in military assaults on several towns in Idlib.

Rastan is traditionally a reservoir of recruits for the mostly Sunni rank-and-file army that is dominated by officers from the Alawite minority sect to which Assad belongs, and effectively commanded by his younger brother Maher.

Troops backed by tanks also entered the town of Qara on the same highway south of the city of Homs, which has been scene of daily protests, killing one resident and arresting tens of people in house to house raids, activists said.

“These armored assaults on outlying areas are designed to crush protests and to contain any defections in the army,” said a Syrian political analyst in Damascus, who did not want to be named because of fear for his safety.

“The regime’s political control on the army had seemed unbreakable, but that is no longer the case, after soldiers saw mosques being stormed, worshippers attacked and minarets shelled,” he said.

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