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High-ranking Syrian general defects from army

By Ben Hubbard

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 16 2013 2:08 p.m. MDT

Anti-Syrian regime protesters hold placards near the Pantheon during a protest to mark the second anniversary of the uprising, in Paris, France, Friday March 15, 2013. France and Britain are pushing for the arms embargo to be scrapped in following demands by the opposition for heavy weapons to fight President Assad's forces.

Jacques Brinon, Associated Press

BEIRUT — A high-ranking general in the Syrian army defected on Saturday with the help of rebels and said morale is low among those still fighting for President Bashar Assad as the civil war enters its third year.

Maj. Gen. Mohammed Ezz al-Din Khalouf told Al-Arabiya TV that many of those still with Assad's regime have lost faith in it.

"It not an issue of belief or practicing one's role," he said. "It's for appearance's sake, to present an image to the international community from the regime that it pulls together all parts of Syrian society under this regime."

Activist videos posted online Saturday showed Khalouf sitting with a rebel fighter after his defection and riding in a car to what the video said was the Jordanian border.

The video said he was Chief of Staff for the army branch that deals with supplies and fuel.

While widespread defections from the Syrian army have sapped it of much of its manpower during the two-year-old anti-Assad uprising, high-level defections have been rare.

The Syrian government did not comment on the defection.

Still, cracks continue to spread slowly through Assad's regime as rebel forces slowly expand their areas of control in the country and put increasing pressure on the capital, Damascus.

Also Saturday, Human Rights Watch said Syria's government is expanding its use of widely banned cluster bombs.

The New York-based rights group said Syrian forces have dropped at least 156 cluster bombs in 119 locations across the country in the past six months, causing mounting civilian casualties. The report said two strikes in the past two weeks killed 11 civilians, including two women and five children.

The regime denied using cluster bombs, which open in flight, scattering smaller bomblets and have been banned in many countries. They pose a threat to civilians long afterward since many don't explode immediately.

Human Rights Watch said it based its findings on field investigations and analysis of more than 450 amateur videos.

A senior Syrian government official on Saturday rejected the report, saying many amateur videos were suspect. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make official statements to the media.

The fighting in Syria has killed some 70,000 people and displaced 4 million of the country's 22 million people, according to U.N. estimates.

The conflict remains deadlocked, despite recent military gains by the rebels.

In new violence, rebels detonated a powerful car bomb with more than two tons of explosives outside a high-rise building in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, setting off clashes with regime troops, state TV and activists said.

On Saturday, rebels in Deir el-Zour detonated a car rigged with more than two tons of explosives next to the tallest building in the city, known as the Insurance Building, state TV said.

State TV says rebels entered the building after the blast but were pushed out by government forces. No casualties were reported in the blast, but the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said four fighters were killed in subsequent clashes with regime troops.

Regime forces also shelled several areas of the city, the activist group said.

In an amateur video said to be showing Deir el-Zour, heavy gunfire was heard in the background and a cloud of smoke was visible.

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