Turkey blamed after defector is returned to Syria

Arab World Materials 16 September 2011 16:26
Turkey blamed after defector is returned to Syria
Turkey blamed after defector is returned to Syria

The first senior military officer to defect during the Syrian uprising has been arrested by regime forces after disappearing from Turkey and was set to appear on state television on Thursday night, prompting opposition activists to claim he had been betrayed by his hosts as part of a deal ,The Guardian newspaper reported.

Lieutenant Colonel Hussein al-Harmoush, who defected in June with senior members of an army unit responsible for a crackdown in the town of Jisr al-Shighour, went missing from a refugee camp in southern Turkey two weeks ago.

He had been received by Turkish officials as one of thousands who had fled the crackdown and a series of security sweeps that followed. He had called several times for other Syrian forces to follow his lead.

The Syrian Arab news agency said Harmoush's "confession" was scheduled to be broadcast on Thursday night.

Wissam Tarif from the human rights organisation Avaaz said he had been told that Turkish officials had traded Harmoush for nine members of the PKK Kurdish militant group, which Turkey has proscribed as a terrorist organisation.

"We have heard from the Kurds that there has been a deal done," he said. "The Turks have been extremely interested in finding ways to clearly define the Kurdish role inside the [Syrian opposition] transitional council."

A spokesman for the Turkish government said that he had no information about Harmoush. When asked on Thursday in Cairo about the missing officer, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did not respond.

Turkey has been a crucial base for the Syrian opposition, which on Thursday announced the formation of a 140-member transitional council, in an effort to provide a unified voice and eventually an alternative to four decades of strongman rule in Syria.

After six months of uprising, which has been met by a relentless crackdown by Syrian state forces, other regional states are also trying to take a stake in nascent opposition political groupings. Both Qatar and Iran have offered to hold summits, along with France, which is calling for President Bashar al-Assad to leave office.

The Syrian regime consistently casts the uprising as a series of running battles between security forces and terrorist groups of Islamists, which it claims are being backed by neighbouring states, among them Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Tarif said there was no evidence that either funds or weapons were flowing into Syria.

He said security forces were facing sustained armed resistance in the city of Homs only, with most other parts of the restive country under military control.

"Assad made a mistake in 2001 when he gave out weapons to people as part of a Golan Heights [protection] force," he said. "It's these weapons that are being used now and a lot of them appear to have made their way to Homs. It is the one place that people are shooting back."

Meanwhile, the former attorney general of Hama, Adnan Mohammed al-Bakkour, appeared on Thursday on a video released on the internet, in which he rebuffed regime claims that he had been forced to make an earlier video resigning from his post and denouncing the ongoing crackdown.

In the short film Bakkour reaffirmed his earlier insistence that he had defected to the opposition - the most senior non-military official to do so during the uprising.

International groups believe more than 2,600 people have been killed in the crackdowns. Between 400 and 600 members of the security forces have also been killed, although observers believe that large numbers of them have been defectors killed by loyalist units.

Gunfire resounded through part of the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Thursday where the local co-ordinating committees, which act as an umbrella group for the opposition, say up to five were killed.

The attacks come as a Red Crescent medic whose ambulance came under attack last week in Homs died at the American University Hospital in Beirut. Hakam Dorak al-Seba'i was injured when the ambulance he was driving in Homs was shot at on 7 September.

Security has been intense in Damascus - the political heart of the Alawite clan, which is led by the Assad family - and demonstrations have not achieved the same size or reach there.

Several Syrian families were reported to have been forced to make declarations that "armed gangs" had killed their sons during recent fighting.