Gunmen believed to be army defectors opened fire on a military convoy in central Syria on Wednesday, killing eight soldiers in a retaliatory ambush after troops destroyed a civilian car, an activist group said.

It was the second day in a row in which an attack by government forces on civilians appears to have brought a quick and deadly act of revenge by anti-regime fighters.

The ambush shows how the Syrian conflict is growing into an insurgency. The uprising against President Bashar Assad was mostly peaceful when it began nine months ago.

The brazen midday attack came hours after troops fired upon a civilian car traveling through the village of Khattab in the countryside of the central province of Hama, killing all five passengers inside.

The vehicle "exploded in a ball of fire," said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground inside the country.

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Hours later, he said, gunmen ambushed a convoy of four military jeeps passing through the nearby village of al-Asharna on the northern outskirts of the city of Hama, spraying it with bullets.

The gunmen are believed to be military defectors seeking revenge for the dawn attack targeting the car, he said.

There was no immediate responsibility claim for the ambush, but the Free Syrian Army, a Turkish-based defector group, has in the past claimed similar attacks across the country.

Abdul-Rahman and other activists who confirmed the initial car attack did not say why soldiers targeted the vehicle, but security forces frequently hunt for suspects in the restive area.

"The area is a stronghold of dissent where anti-regime protests are routinely held and where there are a number of (army) defectors," he said.

The Local Coordination Committees group said the car was destroyed by a shell fired by the army. A third activist based in Syria who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal said the car was struck by a hail of bullets.

The differing accounts could not be immediately reconciled.

The Observatory also reported heavy gunfire in Hirak village in the southern province of Daraa, as troops backed by tanks and armored personnel carriers hunted for activists. Three anti-regime military defectors were wounded in clashes with Syrian security forces in the area, it said.

The new shootings follow a spike in violence which left 38 dead on Tuesday, mostly in a restive northwestern province bordering Turkey.

The fighting in Idlib province included an ambush by army defectors, who killed seven government troops traveling in a convoy. Activists said the defectors were avenging the shooting of 11 civilians in a nearby village.

The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have been killed since the revolt erupted in March.
Separately, a pro-government newspaper reported Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustafa, has been named envoy to China.

Al-Watan newspaper said President Assad had issued a decree appointing Mustafa, who was recalled in October in response to the U.S. administration's withdrawal of U.S. ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus over security concerns.

Ford returned to Syria last week.

There was no official confirmation from Syrian authorities of the newspaper report. It was not immediately clear whether the appointment would affect strained relations, or whether it meant Syria would keep the U.S. post vacant.

China, along with Russia -- two veto-wielding countries on the U.N. Security Council -- have been supportive of Damascus. Last month the two countries vetoed a Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the bloodshed in Syria.