Syrian troops flown in on helicopters descended on an eastern town near the Iraqi border Sunday where scores of soldiers defected to join the four-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad, witnesses and activists said.
Assad has unleashed military and security forces on restive towns across the country to crush the unrest, but the uprising has been building steadily. Friday saw the largest protests yet with hundreds of thousands turning out nationwide to challenge the president's rule. About 30 people were killed on Friday and Saturday authorities rounded up more than 500.
On Sunday, residents in the eastern town of al-Boukamal said about 150 soldiers arrived in helicopters, but there were no immediate reports of violence. The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper reported Sunday that a military operation in the town was imminent.
Activists reported that dozens of soldiers defected and joined protesters in al-Boukamal late Saturday. The crowds chanted "the people and the army are one!" _ echoing the rallying cries heard during Egypt's revolution.
The defections were reported by Syria-based human rights activist Mustafa Osso and Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, which help organize and track the protests.
Both cited witnesses on the ground to back up the defection reports.
The government has banned most foreign media and restricted local coverage, making it nearly impossible to confirm witness reports independently.
But a video posted on YouTube, purportedly from al-Boukamal, showed scores of people marching and standing on two army tanks and one armored personnel carrier. No soldiers appeared in the video but the residents were chanting "the people and the army, one hand!"
There have been previous reports of army defections, although it is difficult to gauge how widespread they are. Assad, and his father who ruled before him, stacked key military posts with members of their minority Alawite sect, melding the fate of the army and the regime.
The army has a clear interest in protecting the regime because they fear revenge attacks and persecution should the country's Sunni majority gain the upper hand.
Assad is counting on this unwavering loyalty now that Syrians are joining the protest movement in growing numbers and from a broader cross-section of society.
Syrian troops also stormed a town near the Lebanese border Sunday.
The Local Coordinating Committees said some 2,000 military and security forces stormed into Zabadani, some 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Damascus, after cutting the town's telephone services, Internet connections and electricity.
Activists say the government's crackdown has killed some 1,600 people since March, most of them unarmed protesters. But the regime disputes the toll and blames a foreign conspiracy for the unrest, saying religious extremists _ not true reform-seekers _ are behind it.
Also Sunday, authorities detained leading opposition figure Ali Abdullah after a raid on his home in the Damascus suburb of Qatana, his son Mohammad said. Abdullah, 61, had spent four years in jail but was released May 30 when Assad issued pardons to pacify the protesters.
Sunday's military operations came a day after opposition figures called for a united front to bring down Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for more than 40 years.
Hundreds of opposition members met in neighboring Turkey to form a unified movement that can offer a realistic alternative to Assad, whose supporters argue that he is the only force who can guarantee stability in a region bedeviled by civil wars and religious strife.
Although Assad's regime is shaken, he still draws from a significant well of support from the middle classes, business community and religious minorities.
Bassem Mroue at http://twitter.com/bmroue