AMMAN - Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad fought gun battles overnight near a northeast Damascus suburb with army defectors who had refused to shoot at a pro-democracy protest, residents said on Sunday.
Dozens of soldiers fled into an area of orchards and farmland after pro-Assad forces fired at a large crowd of demonstrators near the suburb of Harasta to prevent them from marching on the capital in defiance of an Interior Ministry order not to demonstrate in Damascus, they said.
"The army has been firing heavy machine guns throughout the night at al-Ghouta (old gardens surrounding Damascus) and they were being met with response from smaller rifles," a resident of Harasta told Reuters by phone.
Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied any army defections taking place. They have expelled independent media since the uprising against Assad, from Syria's minority Alawite sect, erupted in Mach. Activists have been reporting increasing defections among the rank-and-file army, mostly drawn from Syria's Sunni majority but dominated by an Alawite officer core effectively under the command of Assad's brother Maher.