Activists say that army deserters have killed 27 soldiers in southern Syria in some of the deadliest attacks on forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad since the start of an uprising nine months ago.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the clashes flared on December 15 in the southern city of Daraa -- where protests against Assad first erupted in March -- and at a checkpoint east of the city where all 15 personnel manning it were killed.
The high casualties among security forces suggested coordinated strikes by the army rebels who have escalated attacks in recent weeks, raising the likelihood of Syria slipping towards civil war.
The United Nations says 5,000 people have been killed in the crackdown on protests inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the Arab world.
A report published by Human Rights Watch on December 15, based on interviews with dozens of defectors, said army commanders have ordered troops to use "all means necessary" to halt protests, often giving explicit instructions to open fire.
Meanwhile, also on December 15, Canada urged a voluntary evacuation of its nationals from Syria, calling on some 5,000 Canadians to leave.