BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian army defectors killed 27 government forces Thursday in apparently coordinated attacks that were among the deadliest by rebel troops since the uprising began nine months ago. The escalating unrest prompted Canada to advise thousands of its citizens in Syria to leave.
The fighting began around daybreak in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising against President Bashar Assad's authoritarian regime began in March.
Syria has seen a sharp escalation in armed clashes recently, raising concerns the country of 22 million is headed toward civil war. The United Nations raised its death toll for the uprising this week, saying more 5,000 people have been killed since it began.
"The attacks by army defectors are becoming more coordinated and more deadly. Unfortunately, this will likely lead to a new cycle of escalation by the regime," said Mohamad Bazzi, a Syria expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Sanctions by Western powers, Turkey and the Arab League have added to the growing pressure on Assad from within Syria. U.S. State Department official Frederic Hof told Congress on Wednesday that Assad's repression may allow him to hang on to power, but only for a short time.
Because of the turmoil, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said the roughly 5,000 Canadians living in Syria should leave as soon as possible while commercial flights are still available. Washington issued a similar warning for U.S. citizens in September.
Assad, who inherited power from his father in 2000, has denied issuing orders to kill protesters. But New York-based Human Rights Watch said Thursday that dozens of military commanders and officials authorized or gave direct orders for widespread killings and torture.
The 88-page report by the New York group is based on more than 60 interviews with defectors from the Syrian military and intelligence agencies. It identifies 74 commanders and officials behind the alleged abuse.