AMMAN - More than 10,000 soldiers have deserted the Syrian army and defectors are attacking security police who enforce loyalty to President Bashar Assad, a high-ranking defector said on Friday.

Colonel Riad al-Asaad told Reuters that 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.

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"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".

Defectors surrounded in Rastan

Assad's troops and security personnel, backed by helicopters and tanks, have attacked the central town of Rastan where hundreds of insurgents had taken refuge.

Command of the mostly Sunni Muslim military is in the hands of officers from Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that also dominates the security apparatus and the ruling elite in the majority Sunni country.

The Rastan area is a recruiting ground for Sunni conscripts who provide most of the manpower in the military. Local activists said the rebel operations there were being led by Lieutenant Abdelrahman Sheikh of the Free Officers movement, which allied with the Syrian Free Army last week.

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"The situation in Rastan is difficult. It is surrounded from all corners but the rebels have road bombs and the attacking forces have not yet managed to mount a full-scale assault on the town," Asaad said.

"If they overtake Rastan it will become their graveyard. The rebels have resorted to guerrilla warfare," he added.

Without mentioning Alawite or Sunnis by name, Asaad said morale had plummeted in the military because of sectarian bias brought to the surface during the uprising and that assaults on rural areas to put down pro-democracy protests were leading to ever wider cracks appearing among the rank and file.

"The whole structure of the state is sectarian. The soldiers are repressed and disquiet has been building up from the way army commanders are chosen," he said.

Asked about the military command, Asaad said Bashar Assad was directly issuing detailed orders on how to crush the uprising, with his younger brother Maher, who commands the Fourth Division, playing a major role, especially in Damascus and its suburbs.

He said the attacking forces on Rastan were composed of Military Intelligence and Air Force Intelligence personnel, as well as selected troops from the 11th, 14th, 15th and 18th divisions.

Around 70 insurgents and civilians have been killed in the attack on Rastan since Tuesday, Asaad said, estimating casualties among the attacking forces in the hundreds.

The state news agency said seven soldiers and police were killed in the operation against "terrorists" in Rastan and another 32 were wounded, adding that the army had "inflicted big losses on the armed terrorist groups."

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