Syrian tanks shell anti-Assad fighters for 2nd day

Assad's forces deploy tanks, helicopters to battle deserters and armed villagers in central Syria; deserters forming into rebel units.

Syrian Tank 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syrian Tank 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Tanks pounded a Syrian town that has become a refuge for army deserters for a second day on Wednesday, residents said, in the first major battle with defecting soldiers since a six-month-old revolt against President Bashar Assad began.
At least 1,000 deserters and armed villagers have been fighting tank- and helicopter-backed forces trying to regain control of Rastan, a town of 40,000, in central Syria.
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"They have got a foothold in the southern part of Rastan, but the Free Syrian Army is fighting back and has destroyed three armored vehicles," one resident said by satellite phone.
"Buildings have caught fire in several neighborhoods from tank fire," he said from the town, which lies about 180 km (112 miles) north of Damascus, among farmland and wheat fields on the Orontes River and on the northern highway leading to Aleppo.
Syrian authorities have not commented on the assault, but in the past have denied any army defections, blaming "foreign meddling" for the turmoil in the country of 20 million.
It was impossible to verify which side has the military upper hand in Rastan -- Syria has barred most international media from the country -- but one Western diplomat said it was "highly possible" that defectors were holding their ground.
After months of mostly peaceful anti-Assad protests, army deserters unwilling to shoot at demonstrators have formed themselves into rebel units, of uncertain size, mostly in Syria's agricultural heartland around the city of Homs.
The area is a recruiting ground for Sunni conscripts who provide most of the manpower in the military, which is dominated by officers from Assad's minority Alawite sect, and in better- equipped core units commanded by his younger brother Maher.
Homs and its environs have seen some of the biggest street protests against Assad, as well as some of the heaviest assaults in a crackdown that has killed 2,700 people, by a United Nations count.
"The (army) defections are occurring in the regions where the killings are most severe. For every Syrian the regime kills, it is creating 10 opponents," one activist said.
"The problem is that the defectors have nowhere to go. There is no safe haven or outside backing for them," he said.
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