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Syria: Defectors Attack Military Bases Near Damascus

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DAMASCUS
A Syrian army defector speaks to The Associated Press in the Lebanese border town of Arida on Monday Oct. 31, 2011. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein) | AP

BEIRUT (AP) - Syrian army defectors attacked military and intelligence bases near the capital and an army checkpoint Wednesday during a spate of assaults, killing at least eight soldiers and security forces, activists said.

Attacks on regime forces by renegade troops have been escalating in recent days as the country's political crisis appears to be spiraling out of control. The Arab League was meeting Wednesday in Morocco, where the 22-member group was expected to formally suspend Damascus over its bloody crackdown on an 8-month-old uprising.

Although activists say the anti-government protesters have remained largely peaceful, an armed insurgency has developed in recent months, targeting Assad's military and security forces.

Wednesday's deadliest attack was in the central province of Hama, where army defectors killed at least eight soldiers and security forces in an assault on a checkpoint in Kfar Zeita village, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Also, Syrian army defectors said they launched several attacks on Assad's military and intelligence bases near the capital before dawn Wednesday.

The Free Syrian Army said in a statement that its main pre-dawn attack targeted a compound run by Air Force Intelligence in the Damascus suburb of Harasta. Defectors also hit military checkpoints in the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Qaboun and Arabeen and Saqba.

Wednesday's attacks could not be independently confirmed, and the Free Syrian Army released no details about the fighting or possible casualties.

A Syrian opposition figure said the operation in Harasta was carried out by defectors who attacked the compound from three sides with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. He added that the administrative building was damaged, and the attackers made sure not to hit a nearby building where detainees were being held.

The opposition figure, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military operations, said all the defectors' troops returned safely. He quoted residents in the area as saying that ambulances rushed to the military compound after the attack.

Attacks by army defectors have been rare near Assad's seat of power in Damascus, although there have been growing reports of the clashes in the northwestern province of Idlib, the central region of Homs and the southern province of Daraa.

The Syrian government has largely sealed off the country, barring most foreign journalists and preventing independent reporting. Details gathered by activist groups and witnesses, along with amateur videos, have become key channels of information.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 people were killed elsewhere Wednesday, including seven in the central province of Homs. It said that four others, including three defectors, were killed in the central province of Hama after they were ambushed by troops loyal to Assad.

The Local Coordination Committees, another activist group said six people have been so far killed on Wednesday, three in Homs, two in Idlib and one in the Damascus suburb of Zabadani.

Also, the observatory said Syrian security forces stormed the University of Qalamoon, north of Damascus, where students were holding an anti-regime sit-in. Dozens were reported to have been detained.

The unrest comes against the backdrop of increasing pressure on Assad from the West and from his Arab neighbors.

French government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse said Wednesday that Paris is working with the Syrian opposition "to try to develop a political alternative" to Assad's government.

The Arab League was expected Wednesday to formalize its weekend decision to suspend Syria for failing to end its crackdown against anti-government protesters.

Violence has continued unabated, though Syria agreed on Nov. 2 to an Arab-brokered peace deal that called for the regime to halt violence against protesters, pull tanks and armored vehicles out of cities, release political prisoners and allow access to journalists and rights groups.

On Monday, defectors killed 34 of Assad's soldiers and members of the security in Daraa, on one of the bloodiest days of the 8-month-old uprising. The U.N. says that more than 3,500 people have been killed since Assad launched his crackdown on the protesters in mid-March.

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Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue

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