BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian army defectors killed six government troops in heavy fighting Sunday in the country's rebellious central region, activists said, in the latest sign that the nation's uprising may be shifting toward civil war.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said an officer was among those killed in the town of Qusair in Homs province, near the border with Lebanon.
"Three armored vehicles were destroyed and those inside were killed and wounded," according to the group, which relies on a network of activists inside the country. It said the clashes also resulted in the "partial destruction of some homes."
Heavy gunbattles were also reported Sunday in several villages in the restive Jabal al-Zawiya region near the Turkish border, where many defectors are believed to operate.
Syria has seen a sharp escalation in armed clashes recently, raising concerns the country of 22 million is slipping toward civil war nine months into the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Syrian revolt began in mid-March as protesters emboldened by uprisings across the Arab world took to the streets to demand an end to the Assad family's more than 40-year rule. The regime responded with a bloody crackdown that the U.N. says has killed at least 5,000 people.
The Arab League has given Syria until Wednesday to allow observers into the country or else it will likely turn to the U.N. Security Council for action to try to end the deadly violence against regime opponents, Qatar's prime minister said Saturday.
Speaking after an Arab ministerial committee meeting in Doha, Sheik Hamad Bin Jassem Bin Jabr Al Thani said Arab foreign ministers will hold a "decisive and important" meeting in Cairo on Wednesday to decide on the next step.
He said there is near unanimity on taking the Arab League's plan to the Security Council in hopes the world body can bring more pressure to bear on Damascus to accept it. Syria has demanded changes to the proposal, which calls for an end to the government crackdown.
The United Nations has been waiting for word from the Arab League before moving ahead with a resolution on Syria. A clear nod from Damascus' Arab neighbors could ease Russian and Chinese opposition to sanctions. Both nations have veto power at the Security Council.
The Arab plan calls for Syria to halt its crackdown, hold talks with the opposition and allow in Arab observers to ensure compliance with the deal. It does not call for foreign military intervention, as happened in Libya.
The 22-member League has also suspended Syria's membership and imposed sanctions, but it has been divided over whether to seek the help of the wider international community beyond the Arab world.