Group of 85, including one general, sought refuge in Turkey and were said to be "fleeing atrocities in Syria." Summary.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY - Eighty-five Syrian soldiers, including one general and at least 14 lower-ranking officers, fled into southern Turkey's Hatay Province on Monday, Turkish news agencies reported. It was one of the largest mass military defections since the Syrian conflict began 16 months ago.
A Turkish broadcaster, TRT Haber, said the defectors entered the town of Reyhanli as part of a group of 293 Syrian refugees "fleeing atrocities in Syria." It said the defectors were placed in the Apaydin refugee camp, where about 2,000 other former members of the Syrian military who have abandoned allegiance to President Bashar Assad now reside. The civilians in the group were sent to another camp along the shared border with Syria.
Turkey's Anatolia News Agency said the 14 lower-ranking officers included a colonel and a lieutenant colonel.
The once-close relationship between Turkey and Syria has badly frayed because of Assad's harsh repression of an uprising that began in March 2011 as a peaceful political protest and has since evolved into an armed insurgency.
Turkey's government is now allowing the insurgent Free Syrian Army to operate from bases inside the Turkish border and is housing more than 35,000 Syrian civilians. The Turks also have sent anti-aircraft batteries to the border in response to the June 22 downing of a Turkish military plane by Syrian gunners, and on Monday, Turkey's Defense Ministry said it scrambled warplanes from its Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey when three Syrian military helicopters were seen approaching the border.
The number of ranking officers in the Syrian military who are defecting and seeking sanctuary in neighboring countries, mostly Turkey, appears to have increased in the past few weeks. On June 24 a Syrian general, two colonels, a major and a lieutenant were among 33 soldiers who fled Syria. A few days earlier, a Syrian air force pilot, who was both a colonel and squadron commander, defected in a commandeered MiG jet to Jordan, and Syrian rebels reported that eight additional Syrian pilots had fled to Jordan overland.
The latest batch of defectors was reported as members of Syria's fractious opposition movement convened a meeting in Cairo in attempts to devise a unified strategy for pressuring Assad to abdicate as part of any solution. A weekend meeting in Geneva of major world powers hosted by Kofi Annan, the special envoy from the United Nations and Arab League, failed to reach a consensus on the removal of Assad, agreeing instead to a transition plan that seemed unlikely to succeed.
At the United Nations on Monday, its top human rights official, Navi Pillay, told the Security Council it should strengthen the 300-member observer mission in Syria, which suspended operations last month because conditions were too dangerous. Pillay also said the flow of weapons to Assad's military and the insurgency was increasing.
The observer mission, deployed in Syria since April, is under review by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council, which will decide in coming days on whether to renew its mandate, which expires July 20.xxx