By Khaled Oweis
AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian forces killed at least three civilians in military operations in central and northwestern regions on Wednesday, residents said, following an upsurge of attacks on the army by defectors sheltering in rural areas.
The killings occurred in Jabal al-Zawiya, rugged terrain near Turkey, where defectors have been taking refuge in village hideouts, and in the province of Homs, where army buses and checkpoints are being attacked more often, residents and the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"Jabal al-Zawiya has become a hub for army defectors and we have received numerous eyewitness accounts of defectors and villagers who shelter them found killed summary execution style," Observatory head Rami Adelrahman told Reuters.
A resident of the region, a farmer who gave his name as Khaled, said several more bodies were found shot with their arms tied behind their back since last week, when forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad mounted an operation in pursuit of defectors, sealing off the area and cutting communications.
Assad, who had re-enforced an alliance with Iran prior to the unrest and raised support for the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah, has sent mostly core troops from his minority Alawite sect across Syria to crush the six-month uprising for political freedoms in the country that has been dominated by him and his late father for the last 41 years.
The crackdown has led to increased defections among the rank-and-file Sunni minority in the army.
Diplomats, however said the defectors lack outside support and have not managed to organize into a force that could pose a serious threat to Assad, with Syria's neighbors, especially Turkey, keen to avoid instability on their borders.
"Defections have not reached a level that threatens Assad, but he cannot rely on most of the army. Otherwise he would not have had to use the same loyalist core troops again and again to crush protests and move them from one city to another," a European diplomat said.
"It is clear that the security solution he has chosen is losing him support by the day from the Sunni majority," the diplomat said.
ASSASSINATIONS OF DISSIDENTS
The United Nations says 2,700 people have been killed in the crackdown, including 100 children.
Western diplomats and human rights activists also report increased assassinations of dissidents and protest leaders in the last several weeks, and a spike in mass arrest that have seen tens of thousands of people detained, focusing on professionals and academics critical of the killings.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Monday Syrian leaders would have to answer for crimes against humanity that he said were being committed in Syria.
Assad maintains that he is legitimately confronting a foreign conspiracy to divide Syria and that the use of force has been limited.
The authorities have repeatedly denied reports of assassinations and suspected torture, saying that arrests are made according to the constitution, and that 700 soldiers and police have been killed, and the same number of "mutineers."
President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan agreed on Tuesday on the need to increase pressure on Assad to stop the crackdown, the White House said.
But Assad has relied on Russia and China -- both with major oil concessions in Syria and with veto power on the U.N. Security Council -- to avoid a Western proposed resolution for sanctions on Syria's ruling elite, after the United States and the European Union imposed an embargo on the oil sector and deepened sanctions on Assad and his inner circle.
In the region of Houla in the countryside of the city of Homs, 165-km north of Damascus, a resident said a bus carrying troops and secret police came under attack near the village of Tel Dehab on Tuesday but there were no reports of casualties.
The area, as well as densely populated neighborhoods in Homs, has seen large protests demanding the removal of Assad in the last several weeks, drawing increased deployment of troops and gunmen loyal to Assad, residents said.
Sectarian tension have been also rising between majority Sunni inhabitants and a large Alawite minority in the city, hometown of Assad's wife Asma. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a resident of Bab Sbaa neighborhood was killed by army snipers on Wednesday.
The Syrian state news agency said troops dismantled on Tuesday a bomb near Homs which had been placed under a pipeline delivering crude oil to a refinery in the city, adding that a member of the security forces was shot dead by an "armed terrorist group" in Homs.
Twenty kilometers to the north, in the town of Rastan, defecting soldiers announced the formation of a battalion called "Khaled bin al-Walid," after an Arab Muslim commander who conquered Syria.