General, 84 troops among nearly 300 fleeing to Turkey

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ANKARA TURKEY | Nearly 300 Syrians including an army general and 84 other soldiers defected to Turkey on Monday, the state-run Anadolu news agency reported.

The agency said the soldiers represent one of the largest groups of army defectors to cross into Turkey at one time since the unrest began in Syria more than a year ago. Turkey is now home to more than 35,000 Syrian refugees.

The report did not name the general but said that “several other officers” were among the 293 Syrians who crossed the border.

Meanwhile in Cairo, the head of the Arab League urged Syria’s exiled opposition to unite Monday, saying they must not squander the opportunity to overcome their differences as Western efforts to force President Bashar Assad from power all but collapse.

The stakes are high for calming the crisis, which NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Monday called “one of the gravest security challenges the world faces today.”

But more than one year into the Syrian revolt, the opposition is still hobbled by the infighting and fractiousness that have prevented the movement from gaining the kind of political traction it needs to present a credible alternative to Mr. Assad.

“There is an opportunity before the conference of Syrian opposition today that must be seized, and I say and repeat that this opportunity must not be wasted under any circumstance,” Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby told nearly 250 members of the Syrian opposition in Cairo.

“The sacrifices of the Syrian people are bigger than us and more valuable than any narrow differences or factional disputes,” he said.

Nasser Al-Kidwa, deputy to U.N. special envoy Kofi Annan, said at the meeting’s opening that unity of purpose and vision is “not an option, but a necessity if the opposition wants to bolster its popular support and trust and increase international support.”

The divisions are tied to issues at the heart of the revolution: Whether to seek dialogue with the regime and what ideology should guide a post-Assad Syria.

Unlike Libya’s National Transitional Council, which brought together most factions fighting Moammar Gadhafi’s regime and was quickly recognized by much of the international community, Syria’s opposition has no leadership on the ground.

Regime opponents inside and outside Syria are a diverse group, representing the country’s ideological, sectarian and generational divide. They include dissidents who spent years in prison, tech-savvy activists in their 20s, former Marxists and Islamists.

The Cairo conference brought together various opposition groups - including members of the Syrian National Council and the Local Coordination Committees - to try to agree on a united body to represent them, as well as to work out a transition plan for how to end to the conflict.

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