Image: Hamidiyah market in Damascus
Bassem Tellawi  /  AP
Syrian citizens walk in an alley of Hamidiyah popular market which is seen decorated by portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Syrian flags, in Damascus on Wednesday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 10/6/2011 10:51:30 AM ET 2011-10-06T14:51:30

Syrian troops stormed villages close to the border with Turkey on Thursday, hunting armed military defectors who fought back in clashes that left at least four soldiers and three others dead, activists said.

The fighting in the country's restive northern region of Jabal al-Zawiya, where Syrian military defectors are active, was the latest sign of a trend toward growing militarization of the 7-month-old uprising.

Meanwhile Thursday, the United Nations said the death toll in the nation's pro-democracy uprising, which has been raging since March, rose by at least 200 since the beginning of September.

"Based on our detailed list of individual names that we have been keeping, the total number of people killed in Syria since protests began now stands at more than 2,900," Rupert Colville, spokesman for U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, told Reuters.

Colville noted that the latest figure did not include those who have disappeared and whose fate is unknown.

The Syrian opposition had until recently focused on nonviolent resistance. But since late July, a group calling itself the Free Syrian Army has claimed attacks across the country and emerged as the first significant armed challenge to President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime.

The opposition has mostly welcomed the armed group's formation, and the movement could propel the Syrian revolt by encouraging senior officers to desert the regime.

But the escalation could also backfire horribly, giving the regime a new pretext to crack down even harder than it already has. The sectarian divide in Syria, where a regime composed mostly of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam rules over Sunnis and others, also means that any insurgency could escalate quickly into civil war.

Clashes and defections
Four troops and three others died in Thursday's clashes in villages in the west of Jabal al-Zawiya region, the London-based Syrian Human Rights Organization said. The group did not specify whether the three non-military dead were armed defectors or civilians caught in the fighting.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group had no confirmation of the soldiers' casualties but said three people died in military operations which were accompanied by intense shooting from heavy machine guns.

Syrian defectors armed mostly with rocket propelled grenades and guns operate mainly around Jabal al-Zawiya and also in the central Syrian region of Homs.

Small-scale military defections have been reported in Syria since early on in the uprising and have increased in the past few weeks.

Riad al-Asaad, an air force colonel who heads the Free Syrian Army, said in an interview with The Associated Press Wednesday that the group now has more than 10,000 members.

While analysts said those numbers might be inflated, al-Asaad was confident more soldiers would soon join his ranks. He spoke by telephone from neighboring Turkey where he now seeks safe refuge.

"They will soon discover that armed rebellion is the only way to break the Syrian regime," he said in the interview. "I call on all the honorable people in the Syrian army to join us so we can liberate our country," he added.

"It is the only way to get rid of this murderous regime."

'Mass killings continue'
On Friday, the U.N. Human Rights Council is to review Syria's record, part of its regular examination of all U.N. member states. The United States and other Western countries are expected to denounce what they say are atrocities by Syria.

The Geneva forum last month launched an international commission of inquiry into alleged crimes against humanity which a preliminary U.N. investigation said were being perpetrated by Syrian security forces.

Sergio Pinheiro, a Brazilian heading the new three-member investigation, was to meet a high-level Syrian delegation in Geneva this week to seek permission to enter the country. The team, which plans to gather testimony in the region, is due to issue a report by the end of November.

Radwan Ziadeh, an exiled Syrian activist, said on Thursday that more than 30,000 Syrians had been imprisoned since protests began, many in schools or soccer fields converted into detention centers.

"Mass killings continue," he told a discussion on torture in Syria. "Detention centers are a nightmare for Syrians now."

His businessman brother Yassin and four other members of his family are among those being detained, Ziadeh said.

His Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies had documented the deaths of 183 children at the hands of Syrian forces, many under torture, as well as 18 cases of rape in Homs, he said.

"Child of Syria," a film produced by the center and shown for the first time in Geneva, told the tale of Thamer al Sharei, a 15-year-old boy from the southern city of Deraa who disappeared during demonstrations on April 29.

His parents, interviewed after fleeing to Jordan, said they retrieved his battered body from a morgue, riddled with 11 bullet holes and a drill hole in his cheek, two months later.

"If it were not for the childhood scar on his forehead, I never would have recognized him," his father Mohammed says in the film. "They have taken torture to a new level."

"If they are doing this to children, what are they doing to grown-ups?," he asks.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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