BEIRUT — Thousands of Syrian protesters called on soldiers Friday to abandon President Bashar Assad's regime and join a dissident army numbering in the small thousands, as the top U.N. human rights official warned of a "full-blown civil war" in Syria, saying the death toll in the 7-month-old crackdown has passed 3,000.
Security forces opened fire at protesters, killing at least 11, including a 14-year-old boy, in what has become a weekly ritual of protests met by gunfire, according to activists.
Friday's protests, dubbed "Free Soldiers," were in honor of army officers and soldiers who have sided with the protesters and are reportedly clashing with loyalists in northern and central Syrian cities in an increasing militarization of the uprising.
"The army and people are one!" protesters shouted in the southern village of Dael, where most of the deaths occurred Friday. In other locations, some protesters held up banners that read: "Free soldiers do not kill free people asking for freedom."
"I will not serve in an army that destroys my country and kills my people," read a posting on the Syrian revolution's main Facebook page that was meant to encourage defections.
Friday's demonstrations were the most explicit show of support so far by the country's protest movement for the defectors. Faced with gunfire, bullets, mass arrests and a lack of willingness by the international community to intervene militarily, many Syrians now feel the armed dissidents are their only hope to topple Assad's regime.
The Free Syrian Army, as the dissidents are known, are led by an air force colonel who recently fled to Turkey. The group is said to include more than 10,000 members and is gaining momentum as the first armed challenge to Assad's authoritarian regime after seven months of largely nonviolent resistance.
Clashes between troops and gunmen believed to be defectors left at least 25 people dead on Thursday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said heavy clashes also took place in a Damascus suburb Friday.
Analysts say that until the rebels can secure a territorial foothold as an operational launching pad – much like the eastern city of Benghazi was for the Libyan rebels – the defections are unlikely to pose a real threat to the unity of the Syrian army.
Still, the increased military operations have raised concerns that the country may be sliding into civil war.
International intervention, such as the NATO action in Libya that helped topple Moammar Gadhafi, is all but out of the question in Syria. Washington and its allies have shown little appetite for intervening in another Arab nation in turmoil. There also is real concern that Assad's ouster would spread chaos around the region.
Syria is a geographical and political keystone in the heart of the Middle East, bordering five countries with which it shares religious and ethnic minorities and, in Israel's case, a fragile truce. Its web of alliances extends to Lebanon's powerful Hezbollah movement and Iran's Shiite theocracy. There are worries that a destabilized Syria could send unsettling ripples through the region.
Arab League officials said Arab foreign ministers will meet in Cairo Sunday to discuss the situation in Syria after a request for an emergency meeting by the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.
Several Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, have pulled their ambassadors out of Syria to protest the government's brutal crackdown on the protest movement.
A top U.N. official warned that the unrelenting crackdown by the Assad government could worsen unless further action is taken.
Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, said the death toll from seven months of anti-government unrest in the country rose above 3,000.
"The onus is on all members of the international community to take protective action in a collective and decisive manner, before the continual ruthless repression and killings drive the country into a full-blown civil war," Pillay said in a statement issued in Geneva.
While most in the Syrian opposition still reject military intervention, some now say it's a necessity.
"What we have unfolding in Syria now is a two-tiered revolution: an armed insurrection and nonviolent protest movement, and the champions of both are morally justified in their position and they need our support," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a U.S.-based exiled Syrian dissident.
He said external military intervention, including logistical and material support to the defectors, is a must to avoid a return to the status-quo.
"Yes, we should fear civil war, we should fear the bloodshed resulting from militaristic adventurism, but we should fear a return to the status quo even more," he wrote in his blog Friday.
Hozan Ibrahim, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said Friday's protesters were not meant to encourage defections per se, because this may lead ultimately to the weakening of the army.
"What we want is for officers and soldiers to refuse orders to shoot at civilian protesters, and when that is not possible, to defect," he said.
Syria-based activist Mustafa Osso and the LCC said the protests on Friday spread from the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, to the southern province of Daraa, the northern provinces of Aleppo, Idlib and Hassakeh, and to the central regions of Homs and Hama, as well as to other areas.
The observatory and the LCC said 11 protesters died, including at least five in the southern village of Dael. Others, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in a Damascus suburb, in the southern village of Inkhil and in the Aleppo countryside.
The U.N. human rights office estimates that more than 3,000 people have now been killed since mid-March – about 10 to 15 people every day. The figure includes at least 187 children. More than 100 people had been killed in the last 10 days alone, the global body said.
Spokesman Rupert Colville said hundreds more protesters have been arrested, detained, tortured and disappeared. Families of anti-government protesters inside and outside the country have also been targeted for harassment.
He said it was up to the U.N. Security Council to decide what action was appropriate.
But he added: "What has been done so far is not producing results and people continue to be killed every single day."
"Just hoping things will get better isn't good enough, clearly," Colville said.
AP writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram