Wave of Syrian defections piles pressure on Assad

General says regime's forces are 'destroyed mentally and physically' as more cross border

Istanbul

Another large group of senior military officers, including a brigadier-general, have defected from Bashar al-Assad's forces, piling further pressure on the increasingly isolated Syrian leader.

The group, one of the largest to leave the Syrian army, crossed into Turkey with relatives as Nato allies prepare to discuss the shooting down of a Turkish jet by Syrian forces last Friday.

Last night, Turkey's Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, said a second Turkish fighter that crossed into Syrian airspace last week to look for the missing McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom was also fired at by the Syrians.

It is understood that Turkey will today demand backing from its Nato allies at a special meeting that is already being looked upon suspiciously among Syrian leaders. Last night Syria's Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi said: "Nato is supposed to be there to strengthen countries. If their meeting is for hostile reasons [they should know that] Syrian land and waters are sacred."

Earlier, the Turkish foreign ministry confirmed that a brigadier-general was the highest-ranking defector yet from Mr Assad's army. Two colonels, three majors, two lieutenants and others  entered Turkey on Sunday evening and were taken to a refugee camp.

The state-run Anatolian News Agency said 33 soldiers, including officers, defected as a total of 224 people crossed into Turkey overnight. Ankara has allowed the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) to organise itself along part of Turkey's 550-mile border with Syria. Fighters and activists regularly go back and forth smuggling weapons and supplies into Syria. Thirteen Syrian generals are reportedly now in Turkey.

The defections came  as one former Syrian general said the country's army was "destroyed physically and mentally". Brigadier General Ahmad Berro, who defected earlier this month, estimated local forces had lost around 60 per cent of the country, while the Free Army was growing in strength.

An estimated 33,000 Syrians who have fled fighting in their country are living in border refugee camps. Syrian activists claim more than 14,000 people have been killed during the 15-month uprising against Mr Assad.

Manhal Bareesh, a member of the opposition Local Co-ordination Committees, told The Independent that the growing number of opposition forces was encouraging more defections. "We have more people in each area," said Mr Bareesh, describing local activists as accessible to soldiers who wanted to defect. "Everywhere you can find them." He said opposition forces were numerous enough that a potential defector could contact them, ask that his family be taken into hiding and then escape. "Then he is free, if he wants to join the FSA or go to the Turkish camps," he said.

The Independent reported two weeks ago that Turkey was turning a blind eye to Qatar and Saudi Arabia providing the rebels with weapons, and that US forces were operating extensively in border areas, helping to control which elements of the Syrian opposition benefit from the supply of weapons and ammunition. The arms have been a fillip to the rebels, who have made gains in their battles with Syrian forces in recent weeks.

The latest defections occurred as Turkey called an extraordinary Nato meeting to discuss a response to the shooting down of one of its jets by Syria last Friday. The Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, said the unarmed aircraft briefly entered Syrian territory, but was shot down 15 minutes later in international airspace. While Syria has admitted shooting down the Phantom, a foreign ministry spokesman, Jihad Makdessi, claimed it was within Syrian territory when it was fired upon.

Describing the incident as a "clear breach of Syrian sovereignty", Mr Makdessi told reporters in Damascus that the Turkish fighter was flying so low and so fast that officials were forced to react quickly to what they described as an unidentifiable aircraft.

Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is due to address parliament today, with officials suggesting Ankara might cut off power supplies to Syria. Turkish companies supply about 10 per cent of Syria's energy needs.

Local media reported that during a meeting with opposition leaders to discuss the situation, Mr Erdogan showed them a photo of the missing crew members' boots

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