Eighty-five Syrian soldiers, including a number of senior officers, have defected to Turkey and are seeking political asylum there, Turkish Anatolia news agency reported Monday evening.
The soldiers were accompanied by nearly 300 relatives, the report said, adding that 14 Syrian generals have crossed the border into Turkey since the revolt against President Bashar Assad began.
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The report said it was one of the largest groups of Syrian army defectors to cross into Turkey at one time since the unrest began in Syria. Turkey is now home to more than 35,000 Syrian refugees.
A Syrian activist and Free Syrian Army sources told Reuters that a Syrian general from an artillery division and seven officers were among dozens of soldiers, mostly serving in Homs province, who defected and fled to Turkey on Monday afternoon.
The defectors were sent to the Apaydin camp in Turkey's Hatay province, Turkish state broadcaster TRT Haber said on its website.
American intelligence officials posited last week that despite the recent defection of senior Syrian officers, the army remains loyal to President Assad and is engaged in a "see-saw battle" with opposition forces in which the military strikes hard, then the rebels change tactics and gain momentum, followed by the military forces stepping up again.
"Both sides seem to be girding for a long struggle. Our sense is that the regime still believes it can ultimately prevail or at least appears determined to try to prevail and the opposition at the same time seems to be preparing for a long fight," one intelligence official said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navy Pillay, said Monday that the flow of arms to both the Syrian government and the rebels fighting Assad's forces risks escalating the conflict, which "must be avoided at all costs."
She called on the Security Council to strengthen the suspended UN observer mission in Syria and asked that Syria be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Pillay said the mission's presence in Syria remains vital. "Ending the conflict is what we all seek, and any solution to the conflict must adequately address the root cause of the conflict, namely the human rights grievances," she said.
The conflict has killed more than 14,000 people since the revolt began in March 2011, according to opposition estimates. The fighting has grown increasingly militarized in recent months, with rebel forces launching attacks and ambushes on regime targets.
Reuters, AP, AFP contributed to the report