ANTAKYA, Turkey - A general in the elite Syrian Republican Guards has defected to Turkey, a news website said on Thursday, in the first such reported loss of a high-ranking military supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad since the rebellion against him started 16 months ago.

"A high-level security source has confirmed the fleeing of General (Manaf) Tlas to Turkey," the Syriasteps website, which has links to the Syrian security apparatus, said.

It quoted a security official as saying: "His escape does not mean anything."

"If Syrian Intelligence had wanted to arrest him it would have done so," the official added.

Syrian opposition campaigners and Free Syrian Army rebel sources said they had information that Tlas was in Turkey but did not consider him a defector until he makes an announcement.

"We think he has made it to Turkey but he has not contacted us. There is a difference between leaving Syria and joining the opposition to Assad," a Syrian opposition source said from Istanbul.

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Tlas, a member of Syria's Sunni Muslim majority and a former close friend of Assad, commanded a brigade in the Republican Guards, one of the best equipped units in the military, which is dominated by members of Assad's Alawite sect.

The Alawites, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, control the power structure in the country of 21 million.

The general's father, Mustafa Tlas, served as defense minister from the early 1970s until 2004 and was a confidante of Assad's father, the late Hafez Assad.

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