Three Syrian soldiers who defected to Lebanon after protecting refugees from the regime’s militia have been arrested by Lebanese authorities and risk being returned to face summary justice in Syria, say activists.
The soldiers were manning a border checkpoint on Sunday when a group of refugees seeking to escape the violence that has gripped the country for two months tried to cross into Lebanon. The refugees came under fire from an armed gang loyal to President Bashar al-Assad known as the Shabiha. The soldiers returned fire, and one was killed in a firefight. The other three escaped into Lebanon with the refugees.
Wissam Tarif, of human rights organisation Insan, told the Guardian: “The Lebanese military intelligence has detained those soldiers and they run the risk of being deported back to Syria.
“If those soldiers are deported to Syria then there is a serious risk of torture and execution,” he said, adding that sending them back to Syria would send the wrong message to other soldiers who may be tempted to defect because they don’t want to kill civilians. The human rights group Avaaz called on Lebanon to grant refugee status to the soldiers.
Tarif said that defections at the conscript level were not uncommon, but few higher level officers had shown signs of changing sides.
The Syrian army has spearheaded a month-long crackdown against opposition protesters who have marched in their tens of thousands to demand that Assad stand down. Human rights campaigners say many hundreds have been killed and thousands detained in a brutal wave of repression that appears to have checked the momentum of the protest movement.
Villagers pulled 13 bodies from a mass grave near the southern city of Deraa on Monday, residents said. Five of the bodies were children. It was not clear when they died, and the reports could not be independently confirmed because access to the region is still tightly controlled. Video footage appeared to show the decomposed bodies of children lying in recently turned earth. Deraa has borne the brunt of the regime crackdown. But the authorities have recently turned their attention to areas close to the Lebanese border.
Fifteen tanks deployed around Arida, near the border town of Tel Kelakh which troops entered at the weekend after protests erupted against Assad.
One resident reported intermittent shelling of Tel Kelakh and bursts of machinegun fire on Monday, but the army appeared not to have advanced beyond the outskirts.
“Tel Kelakh is a ghost town. There are no doctors. Pharmacies are shut. Snipers are on the roof of the main hospital. Phones, water and electricity are cut,” Mohammad al-Dandashi told Reuters from the town by satellite phone.
Meanwhile, the White House accused Syria of inciting clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian demonstrators on the Israeli-Syrian border in an attempt to distract attention from its own crackdown. Guardian