BEIRUT, July 13 (Reuters) - A commander of rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Friday that soldiers and state officials had one month to defect, warning them that otherwise "death will find you".
Raising the spectre of hit squads, Colonel Qassim Saadedin said officials must take sides and face the consequences. The Syrian uprising is into its 17th month. Assad's opponents say over 17,000 people have been killed on both sides.
"We are giving a deadline to the forces of the regime, civilian and military, whose hands were not stained with innocent blood (excluding those who are secretly helping the revolution)," said the colonel, who speaks for a group of rebel councils across Syria.
"They have until the end of the current month to declare their defection before it is too late," he said in a statement from his base in Rastan, a rebel stronghold.
Saadedin has a sizeable following among opposition fighters, many of whom have defected from the army, but rebel groups are splintered and diffuse, so it is unclear how effective his ultimatum might be.
While the armed rebellion emerged from peaceful pro-democracy protests, Damascus says the rebels are "terrorists" backed by foreign powers bent on toppling Assad.
Although a steady stream of soldiers and mid-level officers have joined the revolt, the upper echelons of power have until recently been unshakeable.
Now cracks are beginning to show. Last week, Manaf Tlas, a brigadier general and member of Assad's inner circle, fled Syria. On Wednesday, Syria saw its first major diplomatic defection when the ambassador to Iraq, Nawaf al-Fares, joined the opposition.
Saadedin welcomed Fares's defection and urged more Syrian officials to follow.
"If you do not, you will be targeted directly and death will find you, even if you hide in fortified towers," he said. "If you do not defect now, that is a statement that you are partners in this crime of killing, destruction and terror." (Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Kevin Liffey)