Syrians rally in support of army defectors

Demonstrations held in support of Free Syrian Army, as Arab League chief warns of civil war and activists report deaths.

picture from LCC Syria Idlib protest
Activists in Turkey are on hunger strike to protest against Syria’s refusal to allow them entry to deliver aid [Reuters]

At least 13 people have been killed in Syria, including three children, activists told Al Jazeera, as nationwide protests against the government continued across the country.

The Local Co-ordination Committee activist network reported on Friday that six of those killed died in the central city of Homs.

Rallies were held in support of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of military defectors who switched sides to try to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

Speaking to Al Jazeera from the al-Khaldiyeh neighbourhood in Homs, Abu Rami al-Homsi said that 49 protest points were identified in the city and its suburbs on Friday.

“There were large protests in Karm al-Zeitoun and Karm al-Shami and a large sit-in in al-Khaldiyeh. These were all dispersed brutally by security forces,” he said.

On holding protests in support of army defectors, Homsi said: “We wanted to thank the Free Syrian Army, the only protectors of Syrian protestors after God.

“We also wanted to encourage those soldiers still hesitant to defect from the Syrian Army and side with us.”

Meanwhile, in the town of al-Zabadani, 30km northwest of Damascus, activists said that troops stormed the area backed by tanks, but were met with resistance.

Clashes with army

Kamal al-Labwani, a senior opposition figure from the town who fled to neighbouring Jordan two weeks ago, said: “Communications have been cut but we managed to get through to several people.

“Tanks are bombarding the town and have entered the outskirts, but they are being met with resistance. The Free Syrian Army has strong  presence in the area.

“The people of Zabadani have taken up arms to protect themselves and I am afraid we could see lots of casualties.

“At least 50 tanks are involved in the attack and explosions are already being heard in residential areas.”

The latest reports of violence came a day after Burhan Ghalioun, the leader of the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), held discussions with Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the FSA leader, to assess the group’s needs.

“The parties agreed to formulate a detailed plan, to include the re-organisation of FSA units and brigades, and the creation of a format to accommodate within FSA ranks additional officers and soldiers, especially senior military officials, who side with the revolution,” a SNC statement said.

Although it is impossible to verify how many army defectors are fighting Assad’s regime, Colonel Asaad claims there are thousands of former soldiers in his ranks.

Fears of ‘civil war’

Meanwhile, activists in Kilis, in neighbouring Turkey, began staging a two-day hunger strike near the border with Syria on Friday to protest against the Syrian government’s refusal to allow them entry to deliver aid and medical supplies for victims of the deadly crackdown on dissidents.

Syrian border guards turned away the convoy of about 150 Syrian expatriates attempting to cross from Turkey into Syria on Thursday.

Moayed Skaif, a member of the “Freedom Convoy”, said on Friday that group members are refusing food in a bid to protest against Syria and to force Turkey into pressuring Damascus into allowing the aid into the country.

Nabil el-Araby, the head of the Arab League, told the Egyptian Al-Hayat television channel on Friday that he feared a possible civil war in Syria that could have consequences for neighbouring countries.

“Yes I fear a civil war and the events that we see and hear about now could lead to a civil war,” said Araby, whose body deployed monitors on December 26 to check whether Syria was respecting an Arab peace plan.

“Any problems in Syria will have consequences for the neighbouring states,” Araby said.

He described reports from the mission head as “worrying”, but said there was “no doubt that the pace of killing has fallen with the presence of the observers”.

Assessment of violence

Araby’s comments came as the credibility of the league’s monitoring mission was hit by members starting to walk out, apparently because the operation had failed to halt the government’s violent crackdown on protests, a former monitor said.

The monitors resumed work on Thursday, a league official said, for the first time since 11 were injured by pro-Assad demonstrators in the port of Latakia three days previously, an attack that also sidelined plans to expand the team.

There have been renewed calls for an independent assessment of violence in the country following the death of a France-2 television cameraman during a government-sponsored trip to Syria on Wednesday.

The French government, human rights groups and the opposition demanded an independent investigation into the killing of Gilles Jacquier while filming a pro-government rally in Homs.

Jacquier’s body arrived back in France on Friday morning and an autopsy was to be carried out later in the day.

He was the first Western journalist to be killed in the 10-month-old uprising. Syria’s government and the country’s opposition continue to trade blame for the incident.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies