BEIRUT — Syrian troops battled army defectors Sunday in clashes that left several military vehicles in flames. The fighting and other violence around the nation killed at least five people, activists said.
The 9-month-old uprising against Syria's authoritarian President Bashar Assad has grown increasingly violent in recent months as once-peaceful protesters take up arms and rebel soldiers joining the uprising fight back against the army. The U.N. says more than 4,000 people have been killed since March.
Opposition activists called for a general strike starting Sunday to add to the pressure on the government to stop its bloody crackdown. Assad has refused to buckle under Arab and international pressure to step down and has shown no signs of easing his crackdown, which has included assaults by the military on unarmed protesters.
Now, fighting between loyalist forces and defectors calling themselves the Free Syrian Army threatens to push the confrontation into civil war.
In one of Sunday's clashes, which took place before dawn in the northwestern town of Kfar Takharim, two of the military's armored vehicles were set ablaze, said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Three other vehicles were burned in another clash near the southern village of Busra al-Harir, the group said. Similar battles took place in several other parts of the south, said the Observatory and another activist group called the Local Coordination Committees.
The Observatory said two people were killed in the clash with defectors in Kfar Takharim. Two other people who went missing days ago were tortured to death in the central province of Homs, and one person was shot at a checkpoint in the southern province of Daraa, the group said.
The LCC put Sunday's death toll at nine. It was impossible to resolve the discrepancy or to independently verify either death count.
Syria has banned most foreign journalists and prevented local reporters from moving freely. Accounts from activists and witnesses, along with amateur videos posted online, provide key channels of information.
The Syrian opposition called for a general strike on Sunday, the first working day of the week in Syria, saying it will go on until the regime pulls the army out of cities and releases detainees.
The LCC said security forces were breaking into shops closed for the strike in an attempt to force them to open. Residents in the capital, Damascus, said business continued as usual Sunday with shops, schools and other businesses operating normally.
The latest violence came a day after the French Foreign Ministry said in a statement that France was "deeply concerned" about the situation in Syria and warned Syrian authorities that they will be held responsible for any action against the population.