A gunfight broke out overnight after the defectors fled the Airforce Intelligence complex in the centre of Idlib city, 280km northwest of Damascus, and ten people on both sides were killed or wounded, the activists said.
The Arab League had told Syrian authorities to sign an initiative to end the military crackdown on popular protests by last night, and has threatened to impose financial and economic sanctions if it does not sign soon.
Such deadlines have slipped repeatedly in the past. Damascus complains that its sovereignty would be compromised by the plan, which would require it to admit Arab monitors to ensure that Syria pulled troops out of cities.
Assad has so far shown no sign of halting the crackdown on protests against his rule.
In Homs’s Sunni district of Bab Amro, several thousand people encircled the coffin of Khaled al-Sheikh, a 19-year-old protester who residents said was killed in random shooting by the army on the neighbourhood last week.
Abdelbassel Sarout, a 21-year-old football player kissed Sheikh’s bloody head as the mostly young crowd of men and woman-chanted to the beat of drums: “Sleep easy we will continue the struggle . . . mothers weep for Syria’s youth.”
“When we film the protests to send on YouTube, most demonstrators would try to hide their face so they would not be identified by the security police,” said Wael, a young activist in the city. “Khaled was always barefaced, chanting the loudest.”
Security forces and militiamen loyal to Assad killed six civilians yesterday, including a father and his two children in a drive-by shooting, and a woman university teacher in Homs, activists said.
Syrian authorities say they are fighting foreign-backed “terrorist groups” trying to spark civil war who have killed some 1,100 soldiers and police since March.
One activist in Idlib, who gave his name as Alaa, said army defectors based in the nearby Jabal al-Zawiya region were seen near the secret police compound and helped the deserters escape in what appeared to be a coordinated operation.
“Armoured vehicles from an army barracks outside Idlib were called in to help defend the compound. The sound of AK-47s and machine guns echoed till dawn,” he said.
Opposition sources estimate the number of defectors from the security forces so far at several thousand, mainly army recruits from Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority.
Members of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, have a tight grip on the country’s military and security apparatus.
The sectarian dimension to the unrest has come to the fore after tit-for tat sectarian killings were reported near Homs, a nascent insurgency broke out in the provinces of Homs, Deraa and Idlib, and the United Nations warned of the risk of a civil war.