ANKARA, Turkey -- Dozens of members of Syria's military defected to Turkey overnight with their families, a Turkish official said Monday, at a time of heightened tensions between the two countries over Syria's downing of a Turkish military plane.
The state-run Anadolu news agency said 33 soldiers crossed into Turkey overnight and the group — 224 people in all — included a general and two colonels.
A government official, however, said the group included three colonels and there was no general among them. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government rules, did not know the overall number of defectors and the two accounts could not immediately be reconciled.
The defections come three days after Syria shot down a Turkish aircraft it said had violated its airspace, further fraying relations between the two countries that were once allies.
Turkey has summoned a NATO meeting for Tuesday to agree a response to the downing of its military reconnaissance jet in what it says was an attack without warning. NATO's founding treaty allows an ally to request consultations whenever it feels its security is threatened.
Turkey said the plane had unintentionally strayed into Syria's airspace, but was inside international airspace when it was brought down. It has insisted the jet was on a training flight to test Turkey's radar capabilities and was not spying on Syria.
Turkey's cabinet was due to meet on Monday to discuss Friday's attack, which lent a more menacing international dimension to the 16-month-old uprising against President Bashar Assad. Britain said it could press for more serious action at the United Nations Security Council.
Reports are surfacing that Syria may have shot down a Turkish fighter jet over Syrian waters in the Mediterranean Sea. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
Anadolu said the group of defectors was placed in a refugee camp in Hatay, a province bordering Syria but there was no further information. Turkey is hosting some 33,000 Syrians who have crossed into Turkey to find refuge from the 15-months old violence.
Thousands of soldiers have abandoned the Syrian regime, but most are low-level conscripts. The Free Syria Army — the loosely linked group of rebel forces — is made up largely of defectors.
Defectors affiliated with the Free Syrian Army and based in Turkey are known to collect food and other supplies to deliver to comrades on smuggling routes.
The government official said another group of some 60 army defectors had also crossed into Turkey recently.
P.J. Crowley, former State Department spokesman, joins Andrea Mitchell Reports to talk about how US and Russia might work together to prevent a civil war in Syria.
The United Nations has said more than 10,000 people have been killed by government forces, while Syria has said at least 2,600 members of the military and security forces have been killed by what it calls foreign-backed "Islamist terrorists."
Fierce fighting continued inside Syria, which has a 550-mile border with Turkey, with rebel fighters killing dozens of soldiers in the last few days as they fought against army attacks on towns and villages in central, north and eastern Syria in the last several days, according to opposition sources.
Syrian tanks and artillery shelled the eastern city of Deir al-Zor, killing at least 20 people on Sunday in the second day of heavy bombardment in the country's main oil-producing region, opposition activists said.
"Regime forces have dismantled their roadblocks from inside of Deir al-Zor after incurring heavy losses from rebels. They have withdrawn from residential areas and are now shelling the city from the outskirts. The victims are mostly civilians," a source at a hospital in Deir al-Zor told Reuters.
The official state news agency said "terrorists" abducted a state-appointed head of clerics in Deir al-Zor and blew up an oil pipeline passing through the province.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights, an opposition activists' organization that monitors the crackdown on the 16-month revolt against Assad's rule, said loyalist forces on Sunday killed another 70 people, mostly civilians and soldiers who had tried to defect, elsewhere in the country in shelling, military raids and summary executions in the provinces of Homs, Hama, Idlib, Deraa and suburbs of Damascus.
The intensification of the fighting has raised fears in Turkey of a flood of refugees and a slide into ethnic and religious warfare that could envelop the region. Ankara, like the West, is torn between a wish to remove Assad and the fear that any armed intervention could unleash uncontrollable forces.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.
More world news from msnbc.com and NBC News:
- Suu Kyi's journey: Heartbreaking tale of personal sacrifice, loss
- Lonesome George, last-of-its-kind Galapagos tortoise, dies
- Naked valkyries? Nudes open German opera season
- UK's queen to hold historic meeting with ex-IRA commander
- 1.5 million children in imminent danger of starvation in W. Africa
- Mass grave found of 'giant wombats'
Follow us on Twitter: @msnbc_world