Syrian refugees pictured at the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey's Kilis province
Syrian refugees pictured at the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey's Kilis province, near the Syrian border, on June 20. Another general has fled to Turkey from neighbouring Syria and joined the swelling ranks of rebel soldiers based close to the border, the Anatolia news agency reported on Monday. © Adem Altan - AFP/File
Syrian refugees pictured at the Kilis refugee camp in Turkey's Kilis province
Last updated: June 25, 2012

Syrian general defects to Turkey

Eight Syrian army officers including a general fled to Turkey overnight to join the swelling ranks of rebels based near the border, a Turkish diplomat said Monday as tensions escalated between the two neighbours.

One general, two colonels and five other army officers including two majors, accompanied by their 24 family members, crossed into Turkey late on Sunday, a Turkish diplomat told AFP.

Turkey's Anatolia news agency had initially put the number at 33 defectors -- the general, two colonels and 30 soldiers.

In addition to the defectors, 28 Syrian civilians, mostly women and children, fled to Turkey and were taken to a camp in Sanliurfa province near the border, reported Anatolia.

But the defectors, together with their families, were taken to Apaydin camp in Hatay province, some four kilometres (2.5 miles) from the border, which mainly houses army deserters and their families.

The Turkish foreign ministry has barred access to the camp for journalists, blocking any interviews with the rebels or photo coverage.

It is not known what the defectors do in the camps but sources say they leave regularly to help other refugees make the hazardous trip across the border.

But the diplomat said most of the defectors preferred to remain inside the camp for security reasons, adding that they were leading regular lives like ordinary individuals.

The latest defection brought to 13 the number of generals seeking refuge in Turkey since the revolt against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime erupted 16 months ago.

"The defecting generals used to play key roles in the Syrian army," said the Turkish diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Each defector, especially if he is a general, brings with him many lower-ranking officers and soldiers," he added.

Turkey welcomes groups of defecting soldiers on a daily basis, the diplomat said, and the latest arrivals were part of a regular flow Turkey has seen for months.

The refugee camps in the southeastern provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa and Kilis shelter more than 33,000 Syrians, a number that surged after a recent escalation of violence in Syria.

Monitoring groups say some 15,000 people have been killed in the 16-month uprising against the Assad regime, as UN officials say they fear a full-blown civil war in Syria.

Turkey has provided sanctuary to deserting senior army officers who are working with the rebel Free Syrian Army to encourage mass defections to its ranks.

Officials here have repeatedly said Ankara is not arming the rebels and denied reports that weapons from other countries are being smuggled over Turkish territory to the rebels fighting the regime in Damascus.

But Ankara's tensions with its former ally soared at the weekend after one of its warplanes was shot down by Syrian air defences.

Turkey has summoned an emergency NATO meeting for Tuesday after saying the F4 Phantom was downed over international waters, while admitting that it may have briefly violated Syrian airspace.

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