Syrian army defectors deny attacking Baath office

November 21, 2011 - 6:10 AM
Mideast Syria

A general view of the ruling Baath party headquarters, in Damascus, Syria, Sunday Nov. 20, 2011. Residents in the Syrian capital awoke to two loud explosions Sunday amid reports from activists that the Damascus headquarters of the ruling Baath party had been hit by several rocket-propelled grenades. (AP Photo/Bassem Tellawi)

BEIRUT (AP) — The commander of a group of Syrian army defectors retracted earlier claims that his followers launched an unprecedented attack inside the capital, Damascus, in an embarrassing turnaround for an armed movement trying to oust President Bashar Assad's regime.

Riad al-Asaad, a Turkey-based air force colonel who heads the Free Syrian Army, said in a video posted on the group's Facebook page Sunday evening that Assad's government was trying to tarnish the image of the revolution.

"We did not target the party building in Damascus and we will not target any civilian installation," said al-Asaad, who was wearing his military uniform.

But al-Asaad did not address why his group had claimed responsibility for the attack hours after Damascus residents reported hearing two loud blasts before dawn Sunday. In a Facebook posting — which had been removed by Monday morning — the FSA had said it fired rocket-propelled grenades at the headquarters of Syria's ruling Baath party.

There were no apparent damage or injuries.

Syria has banned most foreign journalists from entering Syria and prevented the media from moving freely in the country, making it nearly impossible to independently confirm events on the ground.

The Free Syrian Army, which claims to have more than 15,000 defectors in its ranks, is controversial among protesters involved in the 8-month-old uprising against Assad. Many in the opposition want the protesters to remain peaceful.

But the FSA and others say there are limits to a peaceful uprising, and the time has come to meet the regime's tanks, bullets and tear gas with force. Army dissidents who sided with the uprising have grown bolder in recent weeks, fighting back against regime forces and even attacking military bases and raising fears of a civil war.

The U.N. says more than 3,500 people in Syria have been killed in the crackdown since the start of the uprising against Assad's regime in mid-March.

Also Monday, Syrian soldiers opened fire on three Turkish buses, injuring two people, one of the bus drivers said. The attack occurred near the central city of Homs early Monday, driver Erhan Surmeli said by telephone from a Turkish hospital near the Syrian border, where the other bus driver, Naci Ozata, was treated for gunshot wounds.

Surmeli said the bus was carrying 25 butchers back to Turkey from Saudi Arabia following the Muslim festival of Eid Al-Adha, or the feast of sacrifice.

"We had stopped at a checkpoint," Surmeli told The Associated Press by telephone. "Syrian soldiers emerged from behind sandbags and cursed (Turkish Prime Minister) Recep Tayyip Erdogan when we told them we were Turks. Then they suddenly opened fire at the bus."

Surmeli said he heard that two other Turkish buses had come under attack and another passenger was injured. They were able to cross into Turkey, he said.

The growing calls for Assad's ouster are a severe blow to a family dynasty that has ruled Syria for four decades — and any change to the leadership could transform some of the most enduring alliances in the Middle East and beyond.

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Associated Press writer Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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Bassem Mroue can be reached on http://twitter.com/bmroue