Syrian troops make arrests in manhunt for defector

2,200 people have been killed since March as protesters take to the streets every week.

Beirut: Syrian soldiers raided homes and made arrests Monday in a manhunt for an attorney general who appeared on video last week saying he had defected from President Bashar Assad`s regime to protest a violent government crackdown on dissent, activists said.

Soldiers demanding information about Adnan Bakkour fanned out near the Turkish border and in central Syria, said Omar Idilbi, a spokesman for the activist network The Local Coordination Committees. Security forces killed at least one person near the Turkish border, he said.

Bakkour`s whereabouts remained unclear. The former attorney general for central Hama province appeared in two videos last week declaring his resignation, but authorities said "terrorists" had kidnapped him and forced him to make the recording.

Bakkour denied the government claim in one of the videos.

His defection appeared to be the highest-level so far in the five-month Syrian uprising.

In an audio message posted online over the past day, a man who identified himself as Bakkour said that security forces and pro-regime thugs had attacked his convoy Friday in the Maaret Hirmeh area in Idlib province, killing four people accompanying him and wounding three others.

"I myself was lightly wounded because of shrapnel," he said in the audio recording, adding he was able to escape with the help of other dissidents.

The AP could not verify the videos or the audio recording. Syria has banned foreign journalists and restricted local media during the revolt, which poses the most serious challenge to the Assad family`s four-decade rule. Activist accounts and amateur videos posted online are vital sources of information, but it is nearly impossible to independently confirm the reports.

The UN estimates some 2,200 people have been killed since March as protesters take to the streets every week, despite the near-certainty that they will face a barrage of bullets and sniper fire by security forces.

The regime blames the unrest on thugs and armed gangs and claims security forces are the real victims.

On Monday, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Jakob Kellenberger, said the regime had allowed ICRC delegated to visit the Damascus Central Prison. Kellenberger was in Damascus to address issues including caring for the wounded and access to detainees.

"The Syrian authorities have granted the ICRC access to a place of detention for the first time. Initially, we will have access to persons detained by the Ministry of the Interior, and we are hopeful that we will soon be able to visit all detainees," Kellenberger said in a statement.

Despite the visit, the crackdown continued unabated, activists said.

Idilbi, the LCC spokesman, confirmed the Friday attack in Maaret Hirmeh, saying a high-ranking leader of the protest movement from the rebellious city of Hama died in the attack on Bakkour.

He said Bakkour was now "safely out of the country," but troops were still conducting raids and arrests in the Hama countryside and Idlib province in search for him.

He declined to say where Bakkour was, or how he knew he was now out of Syria. Other unconfirmed reports by activists said he had made it to Turkey or Cyprus.

Elsewhere, troops stormed the flashpoint districts of Khaldieh and in Syria`s central Homs province Monday, killing at least two people, according to the LCC. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said as many as six people were killed.

Another man was killed in the western town of Talkalakh during security operations there, they said.

A reporter for Turkey`s NTV television said gunfire echoed and columns of smoke could be seen across the border in the Syrian town of Khiret Jouz, where a government helicopter was hovering.

Hundreds of Syrians who were camping just inside Syria have moved toward Turkey, and authorities there dispatched several ambulances to ferry wounded people to local hospitals, the reporter said.

Also Monday, Idilbi said there were unconfirmed reports of gunfire heard from Mazzeh military airport in Damascus, where many detainees were being held. Idilbi said there were reports the gunfire was due to clashes between the military and soldiers who have defected, but said those could not immediately confirmed.

A military official denied as "absolutely baseless" that any troops had defected and said there was nothing unusual at Mazzeh airport.

There have been credible reports of scattered, mostly low-level army defections, although it is difficult to gauge how widespread they are. Assad, and his father who ruled before him, stacked key military posts in the overwhelmingly Sunni country with members of their minority Alawite sect, melding the fate of the army and the regime.

Arab League officials in Cairo said the head of the league, Nabil Elaraby would visit Syria on Wednesday. Although Elaraby has said he was not seeking guarantees of action from the Syrian government ahead of his visit, Arab League officials told The Associated Press in Cairo that he would discuss an Arab initiative to help end the bloodshed in Syria.

According to the plan, Assad would immediately cease all military operations, release all political prisoners, begin dialogue and announce his intention to form a national unity government and hold pluralistic presidential elections by the end of his term in 2014.

The Syrian government said there would be dialogue sessions Monday in Syrian provinces to help ease the crisis, but opposition figures say there can be no talk of reconciliation while the government shoots protesters.

Bureau Report

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