'Syrian forces surround town after soldiers defect'

Residents in town near Homs say tanks, armored vehicles begin firing with machine guns in operation to counter dissent within military.

By REUTERS
August 29, 2011 11:24
1 minute read.
Syrian soldiers man tank (illustrative)

Syrian Tank 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

AMMAN - An armored Syrian force surrounded a town near Homs on Monday after the defection of tens of soldiers from the area, activists and residents said, in the latest operation to counter dissent within the military during a five month popular uprising.

Since the demise of Muammar Gaddafi's rule over Libya, activists and residents have been reporting increasing defections among the Syrian army, as well as more intense street protests against the president.

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They said there were desertions in eastern Deir al-Zor province, northwestern Idlib province, the Homs countryside and the outskirts of Damascus, where President Bashar Assad's forces fought gun battles with defectors on Sunday.

At least 40 light tanks and armored vehicles, and 20 buses of troops and Military Intelligence, deployed early in the morning at the highway entrance of Rastan, 20 km (12 miles) north of the city of Homs and began firing heavy machine guns at the town, two residents said.

"The tanks deployed at both banks of the highway, which remained open, and fired long bursts from their machine guns at Rastan," one of the residents, who gave his name 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.

Rastan, situated at the main highway leading to Turkey, is traditionally a reservoir of recruits for the mostly Sunni rank-and-file army dominated by officers from Syria's Alawite minority sect, the same sect as Assad, and effectively commanded by his younger brother Maher.

Mustafa Tlas, who was Syria's defence minister for three decades before retiring in 2006, is from the town, among ancient farmland near the Orontes river.

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