ISTANBUL (Reuters) - The highest-ranking officer to defect from Syria's armed forces said on Tuesday he had taken refuge in Turkey, denying claims that he had been arrested when Syrian troops overran a rebel stronghold, state-run Anatolian news agency said.
"We live in a safe place in Turkey, I am grateful to the government and people of Turkey. Turkish officials cared about us," Colonel Riad al-Asaad said in an interview datelined Hatay in southern Turkey.
Armed resistance to President Bashar al-Assad's rule has emerged in recent weeks, six months into a pro-democracy uprising that government forces have tried to crush with violent tactics.
"All of my needs are being met by Turkish officials," said Asaad, who has emerged as commander of the rebel Syrian Free Army. "The opposition forces in Syria must unite and strengthen their stand until the regime is demolished."
The rebel colonel's presence in Hatay, now home to several thousand Syrian refugees, will add to tensions between Ankara and Damascus.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan plans to visit Hatay soon and is expected to announce sanctions against Syria after having failed to convince his former friend President Assad to halt attacks on civilians and make urgent political reforms.
Speaking to Reuters from the Syrian-Turkish border on Friday, Colonel Asaad said more than 10,000 soldiers had deserted the Syrian army and were attacking security forces.
The 50-year-old Air Force officer, who comes from Idlib, a northwest Syrian province bordering Turkey, said Syrian state media were issuing false reports to undermine morale.
"The Syrian regime conducted a brutal operation in Rastan region near Homs city in order to find and arrest me. They claimed that they arrested me at the end of the operation," Asaad said. "Such stories aim to demoralize the Syrian people."
Last week, government troops and security personnel, backed by helicopters and tanks, attacked Rastan, where hundreds of insurgents had taken refuge.
Activists in the Rastan area said rebel operations in the area were being led by the Free Officers Movement, which allied with the Syrian Free Army late last month.
Command of Syria's mostly Sunni military is in the hands of officers from President Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that also dominates the security apparatus and the ruling elite in the majority Sunni country.
(Reporting by Simon Cameron-Moore; Editing by Angus MacSwan)