Colonel Riad Assaad, a high-ranking defector from the Syrian military, told Reuters on Friday that more than 10,000 soldiers have deserted the Syrian army and defectors are attacking security police who enforce loyalty to President Bashar Assad.
Guerrilla-style attacks were concentrating on Military and Air Force Intelligence, secret police personnel entrusted with preventing mutiny in the military, who have been behind some of the biggest attacks on pro-democracy protesters, Colonel Assaad told Reuters.
"They have a major role behind the military units and on roadblocks to shoot soldiers who disobey orders," Asaad said by telephone from an undisclosed location on the Syrian-Turkish border. Insurgent operations had "improved markedly in quality" in the last week, he said.
Asaad said fighting had also taken place with army forces but that defectors had been trying not to engage the military to help rally support for their cause.
The military and security apparatus has remained mostly under Assad's control but army deserters, many of whom have reportedly defected because they refused to shoot at demonstrators, have formed a rebel unit called the Syrian Free Army under the command of Asaad, a 50-year-old Air Force officer from Idlib near the border with Turkey.
"Morale in the army is low and defections are mounting all over Syria, although many soldiers are waiting because the regime will kill them or kill their families if they leave," Asaad said.
"Our goal is to protect the peaceful demonstrations and bring down the regime," he said, adding there were more than 10,000 defectors out of the 200,000-member army.
Asaad declined to estimate how long Assad could hold on to power but said international support for the rebels, off the table for now, would help "bring down the regime very quickly."
Syrian troops backed by tanks and artillery advanced in the city of Rastan, near Homs, on Saturday after four days of clashes with army defectors, activists said.
"The city is almost destroyed from the shelling of the army," an anti-government activist who lives in Lebanon said.
"So far we have 10 army defectors killed and a number were wounded," he said.
Syrian exiles said there were about 2,000 defectors in the city.
Government troops have been fighting army defectors in Rastan in the first prolonged armed confrontation since protests erupted against Assad six months ago.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets across Syria on Friday demanding the removal of President Bashar Assad, as fighting continued between loyalist forces and insurgents in the centre of the country, according to activists.
Foreign journalists are barred from Syria, where the regime has killed an estimated 2,700 people during a crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, according to opposition activists and rights groups.
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