Syrian army deserters raise alarm on regime's wanton cruelty

Four men recount their experiences being ordered to fire on unarmed civilians and other atrocities, and say that "when the soldiers don't shoot, they shoot the soldiers down."

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GUVECCI // Syrian army deserters who fled to Turkey have told of atrocities committed by soldiers in suppressing anti-government protests, under threat of execution if they disobeyed orders.

Four conscripts interviewed by AFP recounted instances of rape and wanton murder as President Bashar al-Assad's forces combat demonstrations against his regime across the country.

With a blank stare in his eyes, Tahal al-Lush said the "cleansing" in Ar-Rastan, a town of 50,000 residents in the Syrian province of Homs, prompted him to desert.

"We were told that people were armed there. But when we arrived, we saw that they were ordinary civilians. We were ordered to shoot them," said Lush, who showed his military passbook and other papers as proof of his identity.

"When we entered the houses, we opened fire on everyone, the young, the old... Women were raped in front of their husbands and children," he said, giving the number of deaths as some 700, difficult to verify as journalists are not allowed to circulate freely in Syria.

Mohammed Mirwan Khalaf, also haunted by the horrors of a war against civilians, was in a unit stationed in Idlib, near the Turkish border.

"Just in front of me, a professional soldier pulled out his knife and stabbed a civilian in the head, for no reason," he said.

For Khalaf the last straw came when his unit passed through the neighbouring town of Saraqib. A militiaman travelling with them he named as Shabih opened fire on people, he said.

"When they started shooting people, I dropped my gun and fled," he added, claiming that some 25 people were killed in the incident on June 7.

Khalaf's brother Ahmed, who had been called up in another military unit, also deserted after witnessing violence in the city of Homs, north of Damascus.

"After seeing how they killed people, I realised that the regime is prepared to massacre everyone," Ahmed said, looking red-eyed and haggard.

He said that he and some comrades had thought of mutiny but fear made them abandon the plan.

Ahmed claimed the regime posted snipers drawn from the police or the Syrian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militia on high points. "When the soldiers do not shoot, they shoot the soldiers down," he said.

The fourth deserter, Walid al-Khalaf, confirmed the perils of insubordination. "We saw six people who tried to flee, our commanders shot them," he said.

Rather than entering Homs on Thursday, Walid al-Khalaf said he chose to escape together with 15 friends.

"I knew that if we entered the city, we should kill many people. We all took different ways (to run away)," he said.

When asked of the prospects for Syria's future, he said he expected the collapse of Assad's regime.

"All the soldiers are stressed out. Either they will flee, or they will change sides," he said.

Lousha predicted a more disastrous end. "If necessary, this regime will not hesitate to aim its guns and rockets at Damascus. So it will be all over," he said.

More than 1,200 civilians, including dozens of children, have been killed in the crackdown over the past three months, rights groups say.

Damascus blames the unrest on "armed terrorist gangs" backed by Islamists and foreign agitators.