AMMAN (Reuters) - An armored Syrian force surrounded a town near the city of Homs Monday and fired heavy machineguns after the defection of tens of soldiers in the area, activists and residents said.
One woman, 45 year-old Amal Qoraman, was killed and five other people were injured, they said, adding that tens of people were arrested in house to house raids in the town of 40,0000.
Since the demise of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule in Libya, activists and residents have reported increasing defections among Syrian troops, as well as more intense street protests in a five-month-old uprising against President Bashar al Assad.
Syrian authorities have repeatedly denied army defections have been taking place. They have expelled independent media since the uprising began in March.
Activists say there have been desertions in eastern Deir al-Zor province, northwestern Idlib province, the Homs countryside and the outskirts of Damascus, where security forces fought gunbattles with defectors Sunday.
At least 40 light tanks and armored vehicles, and 20 buses of troops and military intelligence members deployed at dawn at the entrance of Rastan, 20 km (12 miles) north of Homs and began firing heavy machineguns at the town, two residents said.
“The tanks deployed at both banks of the highway, which remained open, and fired long bursts from their machineguns at Rastan,” one of the residents, who gave his name as 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.
Security forces killed Monday a former officer who had played a key role in coordinating army defections, activists said.
Mostapha Selim Hezbollah, a former air force officer in his 40s’, was shot dead when his car was ambushed near the town of Kfar Nubul in Idlib province, which borders Turkey, they said.
“It was a targeted assassination. A companion who was with him in the car was badly wounded but we managed to get him to a hospital. The attack happened just before ‘iftar’ (breaking of fast). We don’t know yet if it was security police or troops who fired at them,” one of the activists told Reuters by phone.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in Britain, said five other people were killed earlier in military assaults on several towns in Idlib.
Rastan is traditionally a reservoir of recruits for the mostly Sunni rank-and-file army that is dominated by officers from the Alawite minority sect to which Assad belongs, and effectively commanded by his younger brother Maher.
Troops backed by tanks also entered the town of Qara on the same highway south of the city of Homs, which has been scene of daily protests, killing one resident and arresting tens of people in house to house raids, activists said.
“These armored assaults on outlying areas are designed to crush protests and to contain any defections in the army,” said a Syrian political analyst in Damascus, who did not want to be named because of fear for his safety.
“The regime’s political control on the army had seemed unbreakable, but that is no longer the case, after soldiers saw mosques being stormed, worshippers attacked and minarets shelled,” he said.
The fall of Gaddafi coincided with increased international pressure on Assad, with European Union sanctions on the oil sector that could come as early as this week.
European Union governments may also impose sanctions on Syrian banks as well as energy and telecommunications companies within a week, EU diplomats said Monday.
President Abdullah Gul of Turkey, once a strong supporter of Assad, said recently that the situation had reached a point in Syria where changes would be too little too late.
The Arab League said it was concerned “over the dangerous developments on the Syrian arena that had caused thousands of casualties” and “stresses the importance of ending bloodshed and to resort to reason before it is too late.”
At an Arab League meeting in Cairo, Syrian representative Youssef Ahmad said “the response of the Syrian leadership to the just popular demands has helped stop the popular movement in many cities and their decline in other areas.”
He said the authorities were pursuing reforms but they will not “allow terrorism and extremism to target peaceful coexistence in Syria and the independence of its patriotic and national decisions.”
The official state news agency said the attorney general of the city of Hama, 210 km north of Damascus, was kidnapped by armed men on his way to work Monday.
Citing witnesses, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 15,000 people demonstrated overnight in the town of Saraqeb in the Idlib province that borders Turkey. It also reported demonstrations in Deraa province and Damascus suburbs.
“Oppressor, your reign is coming to the end. Prepare yourself for execution,” chanted a crowd in the town of Hirak in the southern Hauran Plain, according to video footage distributed by residents.
In Damascus, dozens of soldiers defected and fled into al-Ghouta, an area of farmland, after pro-Assad forces fired at a large crowd of demonstrators near the suburb of Harasta to prevent them from marching on the center of the capital, residents said.
“The army has been firing heavy machineguns throughout the night at al-Ghouta and they were being met with response from smaller rifles,” a resident of Harasta told Reuters by phone.
It was the first reported defection around the capital, where Assad’s core forces are based.
“The younger conscripts who defect mainly go back to their town and villages and hide. We have seen more experienced defectors fighting back in the south, in Idlib, and around Damascus,” said an activist who gave his name as Abu Khaled.
Reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis, Amman newsroom; Editing by Diana Abdallah