By Khaled Yacoub Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian army defectors are targeting military convoys sent to reinforce President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on popular unrest, a senior rebel said, increasingly taking the fight to Assad's forces in response to what he called state brutality.
Colonel Riad al-Asaad told Reuters that fighters from the Syrian Free Army, a loose collection of military units formed from thousands of military deserters, had improved their reconnaissance ability to enable them to disrupt army movements.
In the last month, army rebels have attacked and destroyed parts of an armored convoy in the southern province of Deraa, opened fire on an intelligence centre on the outskirts of Damascus, and killed six pilots at an air force base.
On Thursday, they killed eight people in a three-hour battle with security forces at an intelligence centre in the northern province of Idlib, an activist group said.
It was the latest clash in a spreading cycle of violence which has prompted the U.N. human rights chief to say Syria appears to be on the cusp of civil war.
Colonel Asaad said the increased attacks were in response to Assad's military crackdown on eight months of protests which the United Nations says has killed more than 4,000 people.
"For months now regime forces have not entered a city, town or village without using heavy guns, armour and tanks against their inhabitants. We have a right to stop the troops going to violate the people," Asaad said in an interview by telephone from Turkey where he has taken refuge.
A United Nations commission said this week Syrian security forces had committed crimes against humanity including murder, torture and rape. "Defending against such brutality, which now knows no limits, is a natural right," Asaad said.
Syrian authorities say they are fighting "terrorist organizations" that, according to Damascus, are trying to incite civil war and have killed 1,100 soldiers and police since the uprising broke out in March.
Opposition sources cite increased operations in the last 10 days by defectors and insurgents in the central regions of Hama and Homs, where supply lines are being set up to Lebanon and to the rugged Idlib province on Turkey's border.
Opposition to Assad has been fiercest in those provinces, as well as the eastern region of Deir al-Zor near the Iraq border. Assad has poured troops and tanks into the areas.
Defectors have also taken losses, especially in the central town of Rastan near Homs, where opposition sources said 22 deserters including two officers were killed in a tank-led assault two weeks ago.
Asaad declined to be drawn into operational details, but he said the defectors have changed tactics since they started coordinating three months ago, when he said attacks were targeting security police checkpoints.
He said defectors were not attacking troops in their barracks and ambushes on military convoys were justified.
"Tanks are usually assigned to their bases. The only reason they are leaving them is to kill and destroy people," he said.
"Those soldiers who have taken an oath to serve and protect and are now harming the people have to quit and join the ranks of the people."
He said defectors, who number over 10,000, were also trying to target security police complexes where he said thousands of anti-Assad Syrians were being held, as well as command centers directing the crackdown.
"They are legitimate targets across the country," he said. "We have to attack them because it's from there that orders are given to put down the Syrian people."
Last month, the Syrian Free army formed a military council of nine defecting officers headed by Asaad. They issued a declaration pledging to protect peaceful protests, "bring down the regime and protect citizens from repression ... and prevent chaos as soon as the regime falls."
Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the main opposition group the Syrian National Council, met Asaad in Istanbul this week.
Ghalioun told reporters on a visit to Bulgaria on Friday he delivered a message that "we are against civil war."
"We want the army defectors ... to limit their actions to protecting their own lives and to the defense of peaceful demonstrators," he said, adding all armed groups in Syria should work on "one unified strategy."