Syria army rebels fight from the shadows

Wed Nov 23, 2011 9:31am EST
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By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Working under the cover of darkness, their faces wrapped in scarves and black masks, defectors from Syria's army are still a bit of an unknown quantity in the rise of an armed challenge to President Bashar al-Assad.

Thousands of soldiers who fled the regular army after it started cracking down on an eight-month protest movement have formed nebulous armed units loosely linked to the umbrella "Free Syrian Army," led by officers hiding in Turkey.

Isolated inside cities across Syria, the fighters work like a shadowy guerilla operation, promoting slogans like "victory or death" and "death before humiliation."

The deserters say they turned their guns against the state to protect peaceful protests in which some 3,500 are estimated by the United Nations to have been killed. The government, which says it has lost 1,100 security forces to the fighters, calls them foreign-backed "terrorist" groups.

But it is hard for anyone to know much about these faceless men -- most journalists are barred entry into the country, and even protesters, whose demonstrations are surrounded daily by these armed masked guards, are unlikely to know their identity.

"We have to hide what we do, other than with a few trusted activists. Covering our faces is necessary -- if our identities were revealed, our families could be tortured or killed," said Mazen, a deserter who spoke to Reuters by telephone.

Mazen refused to give his location or describe his role in his armed unit: "The secret police are always listening."

Fighters attack soldiers and checkpoints in protest hotbeds across Syria almost daily, but say it is only to prevent harm to protesters. They also launch attacks to seize weapons.   Continued...

<p>Army defectors stand atop a tank in Hama in this still image taken from video July 31, 2011. REUTERS/YouTube via Reuters TV</p>