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.
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 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," Colonel Asaad said. "Such stories aim to demoralize the Syrian people."
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 Bashar al-Assad to halt attacks on civilians and make urgent political reforms.
Four killed in clashes with army
Meanwhile, activists said Tuesday that at least four people have been killed in clashes between Syrian troops and army defectors in the country's northwest. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that three soldiers and one civilian were killed in fighting in the region of Jabal al-Zawiya.
Activists also reported clashes elsewhere.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist network, said defectors attacked an army checkpoint in the southern village of Dael, wounding one officer.
Syria-based rights activist Mustafa Osso said government troops also were conducting military operations in the central town of Talbiseh.
Syria's six-month opposition movement has focused on peaceful demonstrations, although recently there have been reports of protesters taking up arms to defend themselves against military attacks.
Associated Press and Reuters contributed to the report
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