Syrian troops battle hundreds of renegade soldiers

Syrian troops fought intense battles Friday with hundreds of fellow soldiers who have turned their weapons against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, revealing the increasingly militarized nature of an uprising started months ago by peaceful protesters.

Across the country, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets as they do each Friday, braving gunfire by government forces. At least 11 protesters were killed and scores wounded, human rights groups said.

Opposition activists and the government confirmed a fourth straight day of battles in Rastan, just north of the central city of Homs. The fighting, which began with a government assault Tuesday, has been some of the most intense since the uprising against Assad began in mid-March.

The army defections, as well as reports that once-peaceful protesters are increasingly taking up arms to resist a six-month-old crackdown, have raised concerns of the risk of civil war in a country with a deep sectarian divide. The Assad government is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

About 250 tanks and other army vehicles began entering Rastan early in the day, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The army defectors involved in battles in the Rastan area and in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the northern province of Idlib number about 2,000, according to a prominent human rights activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rastan, from which the Syrian army draws many of its Sunni Muslim recruits, has seen some of the largest numbers of defections to date.

A military official said the days of clashes in the town have killed seven soldiers and police officers.

Friday’s protests spread from the capital, Damascus, and its suburbs to the southern province of Daraa, the coastal city of Latakia and Idlib province in the northwest, as well as Hama and Homs.

Eleven people were killed, according to the London-based Observatory and Mustafa Osso, a Syria-based rights activist.

Most of the dead were from the province of Hama, they said, while others were killed in Homs and Idlib.

They had no immediate word on Friday’s death toll in Rastan because of the intensity of the fighting.

Also Friday, the Obama administration said it had read the “riot act” to Syria’s ambassador to the United States over an attack on the top U.S. envoy to Syria.

The State Department said Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha had been summoned late Thursday to receive a formal condemnation of the assault on Ambassador Robert S. Ford earlier in the day.

The dressing-down was delivered by the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, it said.

Moustapha was “read the riot act about this incident,” said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“He was reminded that Ambassador Ford is the personal representative of the president and that an attack on Ford is an attack on the United States,” Nuland said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the White House had denounced the attack earlier.

— Associated Press

by Bassem mroue

BEIRUT — Syrian troops fought intense battles Friday with hundreds of fellow soldiers who have turned their weapons against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, revealing the increasingly militarized nature of an uprising started months ago by peaceful protesters.

Across the country, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets as they do each Friday, braving gunfire by government forces. At least 11 protesters were killed and scores wounded, human rights groups said.

Opposition activists and the government confirmed a fourth straight day of battles in Rastan, just north of the central city of Homs. The fighting, which began with a government assault Tuesday, has been some of the most intense since the uprising against Assad began in mid-March.

The army defections, as well as reports that once-peaceful protesters are increasingly taking up arms to resist a six-month-old crackdown, have raised concerns of the risk of civil war in a country with a deep sectarian divide. The Assad government is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

About 250 tanks and other army vehicles began entering Rastan early in the day, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The army defectors involved in battles in the Rastan area and in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the northern province of Idlib number about 2,000, according to a prominent human rights activist who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Rastan, from which the Syrian army draws many of its Sunni Muslim recruits, has seen some of the largest numbers of defections to date.

A military official said the days of clashes in the town have killed seven soldiers and police officers.

Friday’s protests spread from the capital, Damascus, and its suburbs to the southern province of Daraa, the coastal city of Latakia and Idlib province in the northwest, as well as Hama and Homs.

Eleven people were killed, according to the London-based Observatory and Mustafa Osso, a Syria-based rights activist.

Most of the dead were from the province of Hama, they said, while others were killed in Homs and Idlib.

They had no immediate word on Friday’s death toll in Rastan because of the intensity of the fighting.

Also Friday, the Obama administration said it had read the “riot act” to Syria’s ambassador to the United States over an attack on the top U.S. envoy to Syria.

The State Department said Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha had been summoned late Thursday to receive a formal condemnation of the assault on Ambassador Robert S. Ford earlier in the day.

The dressing-down was delivered by the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, Jeffrey Feltman, it said.

Moustapha was “read the riot act about this incident,” said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

“He was reminded that Ambassador Ford is the personal representative of the president and that an attack on Ford is an attack on the United States,” Nuland said.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and the White House had denounced the attack earlier.

— Associated Press