Syrian opposition group, rebel army join forces

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Story highlights

  • Civilian death toll rises to at least 16, opposition group says
  • Homs governor forms committee to investigate French journalist's death
  • A Syrian opposition group says it is now coordinating with leaders of the rebel army
  • Protesters take to the streets to support the rebel force
A Syrian opposition group demanding the end of President Bashar al-Assad's reign announced Friday that it has begun coordinating with the rebel Free Syria Army and anti-government protesters took to the streets to support the breakaway force.
At least 16 civilians, including three children, died Friday in clashes with security forces, according to the Local Coordination Committees of Syria -- an opposition group that organizes and documents anti-government demonstrations.
The announcement by the Syrian National Council and hundreds of protests across the country in support of the rebel army appear to signal a shift in the anti-government movement, an effort to solidify coordination between the groups that say they have been the target of a brutal crackdown by al-Assad's forces.
The move coincides with reports of increased violence against demonstrators by security forces despite the ongoing efforts of an Arab League fact-finding mission to determine whether the Syrian government is abiding by an agreement to end the crackdown.
Al-Assad, who has characterized the anti-government protesters as "armed gangs," has insisted his security forces are battling terrorists intent on targeting civilians and fomenting unrest.
State media reported that "terrorists" killed three soldiers and injured three others in an attack on a military Signals Directorate Center in Damascus on Friday.
The civilian dead included six in Homs, three in the Damascus suburbs, two in Aleppo, and one each in Hama, Deir Ezzor, Idlib, Lattakia and Daraa, according to the LCC.
Security forces used tear gas and live ammunition against protesters in Hama and gunfire to disperse protesters who gathered after Friday prayers in the Damascus suburb of Moaudamyeh, the group said.
In Douma, another Damascus suburb, a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. news crew was detained for several hours at a checkpoint because they did not have permission to visit the area, the network reported. They have since been released and returned safely to Damascus, the CBC reported.
The group said dozens of people had been injured during a sit-in in the al-Khalidya area in Homs, but that it has been impossible to get them to treatment because of "intense gunfire and massive explosions."
Nearly 200 soldiers and seven officers defected from the government military to join the Free Syria Army in Homs, according to Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamado of the rebel force.
Protesters also chanted support of the Free Syria Army in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus, the group said.
CNN cannot confirm the claims by opposition groups of violence and deaths as Syria's government has limited access by foreign journalists. A number of journalists have been allowed in to the country in recent days, including a CNN correspondent, to travel with Arab League monitors.
The head of the Arab League monitoring team inside Syria, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Mohamed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, said clashes and violence are occurring there. But he said the conflict does not qualify as an outright civil war.
"I don't think there is a civil war now, but there is a lot of interruption and misunderstanding news and there is hit and run here and there, but it is not really war ... as they are saying," he said.
As protests show no signs of abating, the United States, the European Union and a number of Arab countries have called on al-Assad to end the violence and step down.
The Syrian National Council -- an umbrella organization for a number of opposition groups -- plans to establish a liaison office with the Free Syria Army "to maintain direct communications around the clock," the group said in a statement.
The council also is opening a direct channel of communication with the rebel force to ensure effective communication between the two groups "in order to achieve optimal service to the Syrian revolution," the statement said.
Additionally, the Syrian National Council and the Free Syria Army -- composed of military defectors -- agreed to reorganize the rebel military units and create a plan to accommodate additional soldiers, according to the statement.
The plan was hammered out Thursday during a meeting between members of the council and the rebel army, the statement said.
It was unclear where the liaison office would be situated.
Hamado of the Free Syria Army called Thursday's meeting a "publicity stunt" designed to garner attention to the opposition's cause after the Syrian National Council has failed "to gain international support and provide us with weapons."
"We are all opposition, but we have found ourselves trapped in their (the SNC's) political decisions that don't translate well on the battlefield," Hamado told CNN on Friday.
More than 5,000 people have died since mid-March, when al-Assad began the crackdown on anti-government protesters calling for his ouster, the United Nations has said. But opposition groups put the toll at more than 6,000.
Al-Dabi said monitors have been allowed to do their job "without interference from any side." He said the team still needs more time to produce an accurate report about the situation inside Syria and has no plans to leave before the scheduled January 19 end of the fact-finding mission. Monitors arrived in Syria on December 26.
The Arab League has monitors in 16 towns and villages, al-Dabi said.
The team consists of 163 monitors working in 16 teams, according to Arab League Ambassador Adnan Al Khudeir, head of the operations room to which the Arab monitors report.
Homs Gov. Ghassan Abdel al-Aal ordered a committee formed Friday to investigate the circumstances that led to the death of French journalist Gilles Jacquier, the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Jacquier, a television journalist for France 2, died when a mortar shell struck the pro-government rally he was attending as part of a government-authorized tour of the flashpoint city of Homs, according to his network. Eight Syrians also died in the attack.
The committee will consist of a judge, the head of the criminal security branch in Homs, two weapons experts and a representative from France 2, SANA reported.
Jacquier's body was returned to Paris on Friday. A plane carrying the journalist's body landed at Le Bourget airport near Paris, where it was met by French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand, according to a France 2 report.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe has demanded Syrian authorities divulge details surrounding the killing of Jacquier, saying the government should have ensured the safety of journalists invited to carry out the visit.
The Arab League has called on Damascus to stop violence against civilians, free political detainees, remove tanks and weapons from cities, and allow outsiders, including members of the international news media, to travel freely around Syria.