Four more high-ranking officers have defected from the Syrian armed forces and joined the year-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, two rebel groups said on Thursday.
The men fled over the past three days to a camp for Syrian army deserters in southern Turkey, according to Lieutenant Khaled al-Hamoud, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army (FSA). He told Reuters by telephone from Turkey the desertions bring to seven the number of brigadier generals who have defected.
The seven are the highest-ranking officers to abandon Assad, and the rank is the fifth highest in the Syrian armed forces. Mustafa Sheikh was the first brigadier general to announce his defection.
We have six brigadier generals who are now in Turkey and another, who has stayed to lead some battalions inside Syria, Hamoud said. We plan to form an advisory council to absorb these and any other high-ranking defections and this group will plan operations for the FSA.
A Paris-based spokesman for Sheikh's Supreme Syrian Military Council, Fahad al-Masri, said the four recent defectors were still under the observation of Turkish authorities and their names could not yet be released.
The rebels are also concerned for the safety of the men's families, who have not left Syria, the two spokesmen said. They said Syrian forces had arrested the family of Brigadier General Faez Amro, who fled to Turkey last month. There have been several reports of defecting officers' relatives being killed.
The new defections also highlight tensions over the rebel command. Hamoud said the defecting officers would be advisers to the FSA, headed by its founder, Colonel Riad al-Asaad. But the other spokesman, Fahad al-Masri, said they would join Sheikh's Military Council.
In-fighting could weaken the defectors, now a lightly armed force of 20,000 opposing the government's almost 300,000 strong military equipped with tanks and heavy artillery.
The uprising in Syria, which began as peaceful protests last March, has turned increasingly bloody as army deserters and armed rebels began using weapons to resist the security forces' crackdown. Assad says foreign-backed militants are behind the violence.
The senior rebel officer remaining in Syria is Brigadier General Adnan Farzat, who announced his defection in a YouTube video on Tuesday, saying he objected to the intensified shelling in his home town.
He will operate in the battered Homs province, parts of which have been severely damaged during the Syrian forces' crackdown on centres of rebellion against four decades of Assad family rule.
(Editing by Tim Pearce)