Syrian rebels leave besieged town13/06/2012 - 10:20:00
Syrian rebels have pulled out of villages around the besieged mountainous town of Haffa after days of fierce shelling, a rights group said today.
The withdrawal came as the government accused the US of “interference” for expressing concern that the regime could carry out more killings in the area.
The rebel fighters fled the villages of Zanqufa, Dafil and Bakkas under the cover of night, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing a network of activists on the ground.
It was not possible to independently verify his claims, because reporters have not been able to independently work in Syria since the uprising against Bashar Assad’s regime began 15 months ago.
The withdrawal suggested the regime is poised to retake Haffa, which has been shelled fiercely for days as have nearby villages in the coastal mountainous province of Latakia. The shelling killed members of two families who had huddled into a house for shelter earlier this week.
The rebel pullout came as Syria lashed out at the United States after Washington warned of possible mass killings in Haffa.
Syria’s foreign ministry said the remarks by a State Department spokeswoman warning that Assad’s forces could commit massacres in Haffa coincided with stepped-up attacks by rebels in the area.
The statement said: “The US administration is continuing its blatant interference in the internal affairs of Syria, its open support for the terrorists, covering up the terrorists’ crimes.”
Haffa is one of several areas where Syrian government forces are battling rebels for control. It is particularly important because the town is about 20 miles from Assad’s home town of Kardaha, in Latakia province, along the Mediterranean coast. Latakia is the heartland of the Alawite minority to which Assad and the ruling elite belong, although there is a mix of religious groups.
Syria’s Sunni majority makes up the backbone of the opposition, and minorities such as Alawites and Christians have generally stuck to the sidelines, in part out of fears that they will be marginalised – or even face retribution – if Sunnis take over.
Heavy shelling also continued today in the rebel-held suburbs of Khaldiyeh in the central city of Homs, Mr Abdul-Rahman said. Despite a week’s intense shelling Syrian rebels are still clinging to the area. Footage posted by activists from there showed a city covered in a plume of heavy grey smoke. The intermittent thud of shells can be heard, followed by explosions as they slam into buildings.
In the nearby town of Deir Baalbah, rebels and Syrian troops exchanged fire in residential areas, with rapid snaps of sustained gunfire echoing through the area, according to amateur video said to be from the scene.
It was not immediately clear if UN observers in Syria would be able to reach Haffa. An angry crowd hurled rocks and sticks at the observers’ vehicles as they approached the area yesterday, forcing them to turn back.
The observers were not hurt. Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for UN observers in Syria, said the monitors had been trying to reach Haffa since June 7.
Meanwhile, Turkey said today it is concerned that the conflict in Syria could spill over its borders as the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey increased to more than 29,000.
Activists say more than 13,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict so far. It is not clear how many government forces have been killed – Mr Abdul-Rahman said his tally suggested 3,400 soldiers had died in the fighting.
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