Syrian troops fought intense battles Friday with hundreds of fellow soldiers who have turned their weapons against the regime of President Bashar Assad, revealing the increasingly militarized nature of an uprising started months ago by peaceful protesters.
Across the country, tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets as they do each Friday, braving gunfire by government forces who have waged a relentless crackdown. At least 11 protesters were killed and scores were wounded, human rights groups said.
Opposition activists and the government confirmed a fourth straight day of battles in Rastan, just north of the central city of Homs. The fighting, which began with a government assault on Tuesday, is some of the most intense since the outpouring against Assad's regime began in mid-March.
The army defections as well as reports that once-peaceful protesters are increasingly taking up arms to fight the 6-month-old government crackdown have raised concerns of the risk of civil war in a country with a deep sectarian divide.
Around 250 tanks and other army vehicles began entering the town early in the day, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
"The army has been trying to push forward in Rastan for the past four days but they have not been able to," said an activist who spoke on condition of anonymity because the sensitivity of the topic.
The Syrian government has banned foreign journalists and placed heavy restrictions on local media coverage, making it difficult to independently verify events on the ground. The U.N. says some 2,700 people have already died in the government crackdown since mid-March.
The army defectors involved in battles in the Rastan area and in the Jabal al-Zawiyah region in the northern Idlib province number around 2,000, according to another prominent rights activist who also spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making this kind of civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
The town of Rastan, from which the Syrian army draws many of its Sunni Muslim recruits, has seen some of the largest numbers of defections to date.
Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said Rastan had witnessed more defections in recent days and the deserters were fighting to prevent troops loyal to Assad from entering the town.
Hundreds of Rastan residents came out in demonstrations in support of the defectors, he added.
A military official said the days of clashes in Rastan have killed seven soldiers and policemen as government forces conducted a "qualitative" operation on Thursday and Friday in an effort to crush "gunmen" holed up inside the town. Thirty-two other troops were wounded, the official said.
The comments by the unidentified official were carried by state-run news agency SANA on Friday and were a government acknowledgment of the stiff resistance in Rastan. Many gunmen were also killed or arrested, the official said.
The government describes its armed opponents as "terrorist armed groups," not army defectors.
The official said the gunmen had terrorized citizens, blocked roads and set up barriers and explosives.
Friday's protests spread from the capital, Damascus, and its suburbs to the southern province of Daraa, the coastal city of Latakia, the northwestern province of Idlib as well as Hama and Homs.
Eleven people were killed, according to the London-based Observatory and Osso, the activist. Most of the dead were from the province of Hama. Others were killed in Homs and Idlib, they said.
They had no immediate word on Friday's death toll in Rastan because of the intensity of the fighting.
Amateur videos posted online by activists showed thousands of people shouting in support of Rastan. In the Damascus neighborhood of Hajar Aswad, hundreds chanted, "Rastan is the castle of defiance."
"Rastan will overthrow the regime," read one banner waved by protesters in the Damascus neighborhood of Qadam. Many of the protesters there covered their faces with scarves or masks to hide their identities.
Bassem Mroue can be reached at http://twitter.com/bmroue