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Syrian army units turn on each other amid crackdown

Possible sign that support for Assad slowly crumbling

By Elizabeth A. Kennedy and Diaa Hadid
Associated Press / April 29, 2011

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BEIRUT — Syrian army units have clashed with each other over following President Bashar Assad’s orders to crack down on protesters in Daraa, a besieged city at the heart of the uprising, witnesses and human rights groups said yesterday.

More than 450 people have been killed across Syria — about 100 in Daraa alone — and hundreds have been detained since the popular revolt against Assad began in mid-March, according to human rights groups.

While the troops’ infighting in Daraa does not indicate any decisive splits in the military, it is significant because Assad’s army has always been the regime’s fiercest defender.

It is the latest sign that cracks — however small — are developing in Assad’s base of support that would have been unimaginable just weeks ago. About 200 mostly low-level members of Syria’s ruling Ba’ath Party have resigned over Assad’s brutal crackdown.

Ausama Monajed, a spokesman for a group of opposition figures in Syria and abroad, said the clashes among the soldiers have been happening since Monday.

“There are some battalions that refused to open fire on the people,’’ Monajed said, citing witnesses on the ground in Daraa, a city of 75,000 near the Jordanian border.

Syrian victims mourned

in Harvard Square. B13

“Battalions of the Fifth Division were protecting people, and returned fire when they were subjected to attacks by the Fourth Division,’’ he added.

The Fourth Division is run by the president’s brother, Maher.

The reports were corroborated by three witnesses in Daraa and an activist contacted by the AP. All four asked that their names not be used for fear of reprisals.

One of the witnesses said soldiers fired at each other yesterday around the Omari mosque in central Daraa.

He said the soldiers from the Fifth division, mostly conscripts known to be sympathetic to residents, were battling soldiers of the Fourth Division.

“They are defending the people against the forces of Maher Assad,’’ said the resident, who said he lived next to the mosque and witnessed the battles.

“Assad’s forces have it in their heads that we are terrorists and extremist Muslims and they are out to get us,’’ he said. “But the Fifth Division are made up of people like us. We are speaking to them.’’

Another witness in Daraa said that he saw soldiers from different army units clashing Monday in front of the Bilal mosque 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!’ ’’

The military released a statement Wednesday denying there were any splits.

The government has blamed armed thugs and a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, rather than true reform seekers. State-run Syrian TV has been running lingering, gruesome close-ups of dead soldiers to back up their claims that they were under attack.

On the diplomatic front, Turkey held out the prospect of closer economic ties if Assad meets demands for reform, even as Western powers warned of sanctions if the crackdown does not end.

Assad met a delegation led by the chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency and the head of the agency that oversees infrastructure projects, Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has talked to Assad at least three times since protests began in Syria, said Turkey does not want to see an “an authoritarian, totalitarian, imposing structure’’ there. But he has not called for Assad’s ouster.

Daraa was the hardest-hit. Yesterday, more soldiers in armored personnel carriers rolled into the city, where residents huddled inside homes to avoid blasts of mortars and heavy gunfire.

Also yesterday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said for the first time that a target destroyed by Israeli warplanes in the Syrian desert in 2007 was the covert site of a future nuclear reactor, countering assertions by Syria that it had no atomic secrets.

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