Members of two Syrian army units have clashed with each other over carrying out orders to crack down on protesters in Deraa, the southern city at the heart of an anti-government uprising, according to a witness and human rights groups.
More than 500 people have been killed across Syria – about 100 in Deraa alone – since the popular revolt against the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad began in mid-March, according to human rights groups.
While the infighting in Deraa does not indicate any decisive splits in the military, it is significant because the army has always been seen as a bastion of support for the regime. The Syrian military has denied that there have been any splits in the military.
On Thursday, more soldiers in armoured personnel carriers rolled into Deraa while snipers took up positions on high rooftops and mosques, a resident told the AP news agency by satellite telephone. Residents were huddled inside homes in fear amid the blasts of mortars and heavy gunfire, the resident said.
Ausama Monajed, a spokesman for a group of opposition figures in Syria and abroad, said clashes among soldiers had occurred since Assad sent the army into Deraa on Monday.
Speaking to Al Jazeera last night, a resident said he believed the Fifth Division of the army had clashed with the Fourth Division, led by Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad.
“The Fifth Division has opened fire on the Fourth Division and I’ve heard reports that the major general leading the Fifth Division has been killed and that four sergeants have taken charge,” he said.
The information was impossible to verify and none of the other numbers Al Jazeera has to sources inside Deraa could be reached at the time.
“The tanks are being brought to Deraa for the Fourth Division to fight against the Fifth Division.”
The reports were corroborated by three witnesses in Deraa and an activist contacted by AP. All four asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.
A witness in Deraa told AP that he saw soldiers from different army units clashing on Monday in front of the Bilal mosque in central Deraa, when Syrian forces rolled into town. He said the battle between the forces lasted for several hours.
“We saw ordinary soldiers fall,” the resident said. “And then I heard people shout “God is great! They are martyrs of freedom!”
Foreign media banned
Syria has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted access to trouble spots since the uprising began, making it almost impossible to verify the dramatic events shaking one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.
The government has blamed armed thugs and a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, not true reform seekers. State-run Syrian TV has run lingering, gruesome close-ups of dead soldiers, their eyes blown out and parts of their limbs missing, to back up their claims that they are under attack.
In a further blow to Assad, more than 200 members have quit Syria’s ruling Baath Party in the southern province, a human rights activist said.
On Wednesday night, six tanks rolled into the key northern port of Latakia – in the heartland of Syria’s ruling elite – and security forces opened fire on anti government demonstrators, wounding six, witnesses said.
Unrest in Latakia is significant because the province has strong historical ties to Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Latakia is home to a diverse mix of religious groups, with mostly Sunni Muslims in the urban core and Alawites in the countryside. At least 14 people died in clashes in the city during the earlier days of the uprising, raising fears that the violence could take on a sectarian tone in coming days or weeks.
Assad has tried to crush the revolt – the gravest challenge to his family’s 40-year ruling dynasty.
In the Damascus suburb of Douma, security forces strengthened their control, fortifying checkpoints on roads into the area and setting up sand barriers, a resident said.
“Security is so tight around Douma that even birds can’t go in,” he said, adding that security forces with lists of wanted people continued to detain residents in the area.
Troops were using heavy machine guns on Thursday in Deraa, said resident Abdullah Abazeid. He added that snipers killed more people and that 43 had died since the military arrived on Monday.
The latest deaths include a six-year-old girl, hit by a sniper on Wednesday on the roof of her parents’ apartment, he said. He added that pro-government gunmen known as “shabiha” damaged large numbers of shops in the city.
Abazeid said they were still hiding the bodies of the dead because the cemetery was occupied by Syrian forces belonging to Unit Four, considered the fiercest and most violent of the troops in the town.
The city was still without telephones, electricity and water and lacked food and infant formula, he said, adding that some parents were giving their children water and sugar for lack of powder milk.