BEIRUT — Twenty people were killed Wednesday in fighting in a small Syrian village, according to opposition activists, as the commander of Syria's military police announced he was joining the rebellion in one of the army's highest-level defections.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-rebel nongovernmental organization, reported that Syrian security forces shelled Qahtaniya village in Raqqah province. It said at least 20 people were killed, including eight children and three women. The group posted a video on YouTube showing the bodies of women, men and children, wrapped in blankets, lying on the floor of a hospital as a woman's voice screamed, "Where are my brothers?"
The official Syrian Arab News Agency in turn blamed the rebels for the deaths of several civilians, saying an armed terrorist group had attacked them. The news agency, known as SANA, said the army then captured and killed several "terrorists," the government's term for the armed opposition.
Opposition groups and the government usually offer starkly different accounts of violent incidents, which are impossible to verify.
The rebels are desperate to topple President Bashar Assad's government after 21 months of conflict that they say has left more than 45,000 civilians dead. The government is fighting for control of Aleppo and areas around Damascus, the capital. In the latest blow to the government, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Aziz Jassem Shallal, the military police commander, announced late Tuesday in a video broadcast on Al Arabiya satellite news channel that he was joining "the revolution of the people."
Sitting in his green camouflage uniform, Shallal said he had left the government because it had turned into "a gang that is killing and destroying" and "committing massacres against our unarmed people who went out to demand freedom."
He follows in the footsteps of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlas, an influential commander who defected in July. Scores of ordinary soldiers have also deserted over the course of the conflict, citing the state's harsh treatment of civilians.
In other developments, the international community's special envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, continued meetings in Syria. He had been expected to leave Syria on Monday after meeting with Assad, but has stayed on. On Tuesday, he met with representatives of an opposition group sanctioned by the state, SANA said.
Assad sent two members from his Foreign Ministry to Moscow for consultations Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. Moscow has distanced itself from Assad in recent weeks, making it clear that its priority was a peace deal ending Syria's violence, not keeping Assad in power.
Brahimi is expected to travel for talks Saturday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but the envoy's office had no immediate confirmation. Brahimi has been pushing plans for a transitional government, but details remain vague.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faysal Mekdad was due to arrive in Moscow on Wednesday night, the Interfax news agency said.
According to Russian news reports, Moscow, a longtime ally, may broach a new initiative under which Assad would stay in power until 2014. Such a plan would never be accepted by the Syrian opposition, said Georgy Mirsky, chief researcher at the Moscow-based Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin "would certainly be happy should Assad decide to step down and flee Syria of his own accord, and certainly Moscow wouldn't mind a compromise option for him to stay in power until 2014," Mirsky said in an interview Wednesday. "But I have no doubt that the opposition will denounce the plan and I have a hard time believing that Assad's own clan will let him go so easily."
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko in Moscow and special correspondent Lava Selo in Beirut contributed to this report.