Syrian troops battled army defectors Sunday in clashes that set several military vehicles ablaze. The fighting and other violence around the nation killed at least eight people, activists said.
For the first time, an act of violent protest against President Bashar Assad's regime spilled across the border into Jordan, where about a dozen Syrians attacked their embassy Sunday in the capital, Amman, injuring at least two diplomats and four other consulate employees.
The 9-month-old uprising against Syria's authoritarian President Bashar Assad has grown increasingly violent in recent months as once-peaceful protesters take up arms and defected soldiers who have joined the uprising fight back against the army. The U.N. says more than 4,000 people have been killed since March.
Opposition activists called for a general strike starting Sunday in a bid to squeeze the government and push it to stop its bloody crackdown. Assad has refused to buckle under Arab and international pressure to step down and has shown no sign of easing his crackdown, which has included assaults by the military on unarmed protesters.
Now, fighting between loyalist forces and defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army threatens to push the confrontation into civil war.
In one of Sunday's clashes, which took place before dawn in the northwestern town of Kfar Takharim, two of the military's armored vehicles were set ablaze, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Three other vehicles were burned in another clash near the southern village of Busra al-Harir, the group said. Similar battles took place in several other parts of the south, said the Observatory and another activist group called the Local Coordination Committees.
The Observatory said two people were killed in the clash with defectors in Kfar Takharim. Two other people who went missing days ago were tortured to death in the central province of Homs, and one person was shot at a checkpoint in the southern province of Daraa, the group said.
The group also said that two people were killed in the central province of Homs, and the body of another person who had been missing for days was also found Sunday. Two other people were killed in the Damascus suburb of Douma, and another person in Hama in central Syria.
The LCC put Sunday's death toll at 18. It was impossible to resolve the discrepancy or to independently verify either death count.
Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from moving freely. Accounts from activists and witnesses, along with amateur videos posted online, provide key channels of information.
In Jordan, the Syrian Embassy said a group of protesters linked to the unrest at home entered the mission claiming they had paperwork to finish and beat up the consul, another diplomat, a security guard and several other staff members.
An embassy statement said its guards arrested one of the attackers, identified as Syrian refugee Ahmed al-Shureiqi. It said Jordanian police arrested eight others, all Syrians allegedly involved in the Sunday morning attack.
Jordanian police spokesmen did not answer repeated calls to confirm the arrest.
The Syrian opposition called for a general strike on Sunday, the first working day of the week in Syria, saying it will go on until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases detainees.
The LCC said security forces were breaking into shops closed for the strike in an attempt to force them to open. Residents in the capital, Damascus, said business continued as usual Sunday with shops, schools and other businesses operating normally.
In Vienna, Israeli Defense Minister Ehuyd Barak said Assad's downfall would be a "blessing for the Middle East," and predicted the Syrian regime would be forced out of power within weeks.
On Monday, Syrians are scheduled to vote in municipal elections for the country's 14 provinces _ the first test of reforms by Assad since the uprising began. The state-run news agency SANA said 42,889 candidates will be competing for the 17,588 seats on local administration councils.
It was unclear how many people would actually turn out to vote in tense areas like Idlib, Homs and Hama because of the crackdown.
The vote, held once every for years, also will be a test ahead of February's parliamentary elections that authorities promise will be free. For the first time in decades, a Supreme Elections Committee, made up of five judges, has been formed to supervise the elections that used to be dominated by Assad's ruling Baath party.
Assad has tried to counter the mass revolt against his family's 40-year dynasty with a security crackdown, coupled with promises of reform. He has lifted the decades-old state of emergency and in July endorsed legislation that would enable newly formed political parties to run for parliament and local councils.
Opposition figures, however, have dismissed the moves as mere posturing, and insist the only way to resolve the crisis is ousting the regime.
Special indelible ink will be used for the first time in the local elections "to prevent any fraud," SANA quoted the minister of local administration, Omar Ghalawanji, as saying.
Mohammad Habash, a member of the outgoing parliament, said the National Progressive Front's list, which includes the Baath and 11 other closely associated parties, has been replaced by a new one called the "list of National Unity," which, he said, combines new candidates who don't belong to NPF parties.
"I don't think that such cosmetic measures will end the crisis in the country," Habash said, adding that "what is needed is to end the congestion and move toward a correct democratic state."
Associated Press writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.
Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue