Syria's deputy oil minister resigned on Thursday to join an anti-regime revolt, as UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan urged more diplomacy rather than militarisation to end the crisis in Syria.
Activists said they feared an assault on villages in the Jabal al-Zawiya hill district in the northwest, where rebels have been active, similar to the one that devastated the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs.
A child was among six people killed in violence across the country, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which this week put the number of people killed since the uprising began a year ago at almost 8,500.
Abdo Hussameddin, who took his bachelor's degree in battered Homs, announced his resignation in a video posted by activists on YouTube, saying he was joining the ranks of the rebels.
"I, the engineer Abdo Hussameddin, the deputy oil minister ... announce my defection from the regime and my resignation," he said in the video.
"I am joining the revolution of the people who reject injustice and the brutal campaign of the regime, which is seeking to crush the people's demand for freedom and dignity," he added.
The defection was quickly welcomed by Syrian opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun, who told AFP he expects more government officials and politicians to do the same.
"I hail the deputy (oil) minister who defected and I call on all government members and public servants ... to abandon this regime and join the ranks of the revolution for freedom and dignity," said Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, the main opposition group.
"I expect for sure that there are other government officials and politicians who will follow suit," he added.
Former UN chief Annan told reporters in Cairo he had urged "the Syrian opposition to come together to work with us to find a solution that will respect the aspirations of the Syrian people."
He also warned against further militarisation of the crisis, amid a groundswell of international support for arming the rebels. The mostly army defectors who make up the Free Syrian Army are battling regime forces in a number of flashpoint areas.
Annan, who is head to Damascus on Saturday, warned of "the possible impact of Syria on the region if there is any miscalculation."
"I hope that no one is very seriously thinking of using force in this situation," he said, adding that diplomatic efforts should be kept up.
"I also don't rule out giving more non-lethal help, but we haven't countenanced doing that beyond groups that are, so far, located outside Syria and are trying to pursue a peaceful, democratic transition," Foreign Secretary William Hague told members of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee.
"We always consult closely with the United States," he added.
Late on Wednesday, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta said Washington was looking at delivering non-lethal aid to Syria's rebels, hinting at the first direct US assistance to the forces seeking Assad's downfall.
Asked if the United States was ready to deliver communications equipment to Syrian rebels, Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee: "I'd prefer to discuss that in a closed session but I can tell you that we're considering an array of non-lethal assistance."
In Idlib province in the northwest, the Syrian army pressed a troop buildup that the Syrian Observatory said appeared to indicate a major assault was imminent.
Milad Fadl, a member of the opposition Syrian Revolution General Commission, said tanks and troops were deploying heavily around the Jabal al-Zawiya district near the border with Turkey, where rebel fighters have been active.
"Large numbers of residents from eight villages in that area have fled," Fadl told AFP, adding that people were also leaving the city of Idlib itself.
"The government troops have asked members of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) to surrender their weapons through messages on mosque loudspeakers or through local officials," Fadl said.
He said one civilian was "executed" on Thursday in Jabal al-Zawiya and five homes were burned down to punish the local population for supporting the rebel fighters.
The state SANA news agency said "armed terrorist gangs" were looting and destroying property in several towns and villages in the province.
It added that security forces had defused four bombs planted by "terrorist groups" in the town of Sarakeb.
In Washington, Libya's interim Prime Minister Abdel Rahim al-Kib said he was "not aware" of the presence in his country of camps training Syrian rebels as alleged on Wednesday by Russia's envoy to the United Nations, Vituly Churkin.
"As far as training camps, unless this is done without government permission, which I doubt, I'm not aware of any," Kib said.
Source: AFP Global Edition