Amman: Syria said on Friday that seven of its soldiers and police were killed in an operation against terrorists in the central town of Rastan, where armed resistance has emerged after months of mostly peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
The state news agency reported the deaths in the first official comment on a three-day government offensive to recapture the area from Army defectors.
"The units responsible have inflicted big losses on the armed terrorist groups," the agency said, quoting a military spokesman. "The confrontation resulted in the killing of seven personnel, among them two officers, and the injuring of 32, including seven officers, from the Army and security police."
Syria`s Army and security forces have remained mostly loyal to Assad during the six months of protests demanding his overthrow in which the United Nations says 2,700 people have been killed.
But Army deserters, many of whom defected because they refused to shoot at demonstrators, have formed rebel units mostly in farming areas around Rastan, a town of 40,000 people which lies 180 km (110 miles), north of Damascus.
One Army defector operating in the province of Idlib, northwest of Rastan, said the defectors in the town were using guerrilla tactics against the heavily-armed loyalist forces.
"Rastan has been churning out Army officers for decades and there is a lot of experience among the defecting soldiers. Assad is mistaken if he thinks that he can wrap up the attack quickly," he said, adding that agricultural terrain made it difficult for the regular Army to seal off the area.
The Rastan area is a recruiting ground for Sunni conscripts who provide most of manpower in the military, which is dominated by officers from Assad`s minority Alawite sect.
Residents say that at least 1,000 deserters and armed villagers have been fighting the loyalist forces which are backed up by tanks and helicopters.
Syria says more than 700 soldiers and police have been killed in the uprising which it blames on armed groups backed by foreign powers.
In Rastan, troops and security police "were continuing to chase members of these terrorist groups to restore security and stability to Rastan and its citizens", the news agency said.
Stones and tomatoes
On Thursday, Assad supporters threw stones and tomatoes at US Ambassador Robert Ford`s convoy as he visited an opposition figure in Damascus.
Ford and his party were uninjured, the US State Department said, but several embassy vehicles were damaged and the ambassador had to lock himself in an office to await help from Syrian security.
Syria, which has been irked by Ford`s meetings with opposition figures, accused Washington of inciting violence and meddling in its affairs. Washington demanded that Syria take steps to protect US diplomats.
"We condemn this unwarranted attack in the strongest possible terms. Ambassador Ford and his aides were conducting normal embassy business and this attempt to intimidate our diplomats through violence is wholly unjustified," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.
"We immediately raised this incident with the Syrian government and we are demanding that they take every possible step to protect our diplomats according to their obligations under international law."
The Syrian government said that once it had been alerted to the confrontation, authorities "took all necessary procedures to protect the ambassador and his team and secure their return to their place of work".
Assad`s crackdown on the pro-democracy protests has poisoned relations with the United States, which has imposed fresh sanctions and rallied world pressure on Syria.
The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams said the era of one-man rule in Arab countries was drawing to a close, and the change sweeping the region would soon take hold in Syria.
"Syria is in the midst of a profound crisis. I do believe strongly that there will be substantial change," Williams said. "When that will take place it is very difficult to ascertain but I don`t think we are talking about years."
At the United Nations, European members of the Security Council softened a draft resolution condemning Syria`s crackdown but Russia said it could not support the new text.
The latest version of the resolution showed that drafters Britain, France, Germany and Portugal had deleted a reference to UN human rights chief Navi Pillay`s recommendation that the council consider referring the Syrian government`s crackdown to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The United States is expected to support it, envoys said, despite its disappointment about compromises made in an attempt to woo Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa.