Syrian Forces Seeking Army Defectors Storm Cities, Killing 8

Syrian troops backed by tanks and helicopters have killed at least eight people in raids designed to crush army deserters who are fighting back after months of mostly peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Activists say dozens of armored vehicles entered the central town of Rastan early Tuesday, while army troops stormed hospital emergency rooms looking for wounded rebel soldiers. Dozens of people were reported taken from their homes.

The defectors, estimated to number in the thousands across the country, are part of the newly formed Free Syrian Army. The dissident soldiers are led by Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who defected from the air force in July.

Rights groups say at least six people were killed Tuesday in government raids on the central city of Homs and two more in northwestern Idlib province.

In a blog launched Monday, the British ambassador in Damascus assailed Syria’s leaders for the “violent suppression of mostly peaceful protests” and for systematically trying to hide the reality from the world. Simon Collis wrote that the government “remains determined to control every significant aspect of political life in Syria” and “will do anything” to maintain power.

Tuesday’s operations in Rastan and Homs came a day after Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mouallem repeated the government’s position that armed groups are responsible for the situation in Syria.

The U.S. ambassador in Syria, Robert Ford, told The Washington Post that “the vast majority” of protesters are still unarmed. But Syrian military defections have been accelerating in recent weeks and the newspaper reported that the Free Syrian Army is expanding. The group has announced the formation of 12 battalions across the country.

Human Rights Watch rejected Syria’s explanation of the violence. The group’s U.N. director, Philippe Bolopion, said documented evidence shows the Syrian government has carried out a “merciless campaign” of killings, torture and arbitrary detention. He urged the U.N. Security Council to take action.

President Assad has repeatedly sent troops across the country to quell anti-government protests. The U.N. says the crackdown has killed at least 2,700 people since mass protests started in March.

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