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.
The blast came a day after Syrians marked the second anniversary of the start of their uprising against President Bashar Assad. The rebellion began with largely peaceful protests, but when the regime cracked down on demonstrators, the unrest evolved into an insurgency and then a civil war.
In recent months, the Assad regime has escalated airstrikes and artillery attacks on rebel-held areas in the north and east of the country, rights groups have said.
The Observatory also said at least 12 rebel fighters were killed in clashes near a cement factory in the northern city of Aleppo, and five people were killed when a shell exploded in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun.
Also Saturday, the head of Syria's leading opposition group issued an anniversary message to Syrians, saying that the uprising has "has taken a long time."
The opposition recognizes March 15, 2011 as the start of the uprising.
In a video posted on his Facebook page, Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, congratulated the town of Yabrud, north of Damascus, for creating a civil council to run its affairs.
"Our people are great, our people are civilized and they don't need gangs to rule them," al-Khatib said, sitting in front of a Syrian flag and cracking a rare smile. "They just need to breathe a little bit of the air of freedom and they'll create as they have created in all places."
All videos appeared authentic and corresponded with other reporting by The Associated Press.