Syrian troops retake most of central rebel town
By Bassem Mroue,
BEIRUT — Syrian troops retook most of a rebellious central town Saturday after five days of intense fighting with army defectors who had sided with protesters, a human rights group said.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the troops spread out across Rastan after defectors pulled out of the town.
The army defections, as well as reports that once-peaceful protesters are increasingly taking up arms to fight the government crackdown, have raised concerns of the risk of civil war in a country with a deep sectarian divide.
The uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s government began in mid-March with rallies by peaceful, unarmed protesters. Attacks by pro-government gunmen and Syrian military forces have failed to keep the demonstrators from the streets.
The fighting in Rastan began with a government assault Tuesday.
An activist who spoke with a Rastan resident able to flee the town Friday quoted him as saying the fighting was so heavy residents had to hide in their homes. Rights activists said 250 tanks and other army vehicles entered the town Friday.
Landline and cellphone services to Rastan were cut Saturday, making it impossible to get information from residents still inside.
In nearby areas, residents said the main highway linking the central city of Homs with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest, had been closed for days because of the fighting.
The London-based Observatory said three people died of their wounds Saturday, a day after they were shot by security forces. One of the men died in Talbiseh, near Rastan, while the two others died in the Damascus suburbs of Qudsaya and Harasta, the group said.
A military official said Friday that the clashes in Rastan killed seven soldiers and police officers. Thirty-two other troops were wounded, the official said.
The comments by the unidentified official were carried by state-run news agency SANA on Friday and were a government acknowledgment of the stiff resistance in Rastan.
The Syrian government has banned foreign journalists and placed heavy restrictions on local media coverage, making it difficult to independently verify events on the ground.
The United Nations says some 2,700 people have died in the crackdown since mid-March. The Observatory said the death toll was approaching 3,000. Abdul-Rahman said that as of Saturday, 2,325 civilians have been killed, as well as 656 members of the army and security forces.
— Associated Press