BEIRUT — The Syrian regime is expanding its use of widely banned cluster bombs, an international human rights group said Saturday as the deadlocked conflict entered its third year.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said Syrian forces have dropped at least 156 cluster bombs in 119 locations across the country in the past six months, causing mounting civilian casualties.
In new violence, rebels detonated a powerful car bomb outside a highrise building in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour, setting off clashes with regime troops, state TV and activists said.
The blast came a day after Syrians marked the second anniversary of the start of their uprising against President Bashar Assad. The rebellion began with largely peaceful protests, but when the regime cracked down on demonstrators, the unrest evolved into an insurgency and then a civil war.
Also Saturday, a high-ranking Syrian general announced his defection from the army. The defector, Brigadier General Mohammed Nour Ezzedeen Khallouf, was the army’s chief of supplies and logistics.
In recent months, the Assad regime has escalated airstrikes and artillery attacks on rebel-held areas in the north and east of the country, rights groups have said.
The regime has denied that it is using cluster bombs, but the report said that two strikes in the past two weeks killed 11 civilians, including two women and five children.
Cluster bombs open in flight, scattering smaller bomblets. They pose a threat to civilians long afterwards since many don’t explode immediately. Many countries have banned their use.
Human Rights Watch said it based its findings on field investigations and analysis of more than 450 amateur videos.
A senior Syrian government official Saturday rejected the report, saying many amateur videos were suspect. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make official statements.
The fighting in Syria has killed some 70,000 people and displaced 4 million of the country’s 22 million people, according to UN estimates.
The conflict remains deadlocked, despite some recent military gains by the rebels.
On Saturday, rebels in Deir el-Zour detonated a car rigged with more than two tons of explosives next to the tallest building in the city, known as the Insurance Building, state TV said.
The TV said rebels entered the building after the blast but were pushed out by government forces. It was not immediately known whether anyone was wounded or killed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said at least 12 rebel fighters were killed in clashes near a cement factory in the northern city of Aleppo and that five people were killed when a shell exploded in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun.
Also Saturday, the head of Syria’s leading opposition group issued an anniversary message to Syrians, saying that the uprising has ‘‘has taken a long time.’’
The opposition recognizes March 15, 2011 as the start of the uprising.
In a video posted on his Facebook page, Mouaz al-Khatib, head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, congratulated the town of Yabrud, north of Damascus, for creating a civil council to run its affairs.
‘‘Our people are great, our people are civilized and they don’t need gangs to rule them,’’ al-Khatib said, sitting in front of a Syrian flag and cracking a rare smile. ‘‘They just need to breathe a little bit of the air of freedom and they'll create as they have created in all places.’’