DAMASCUS, Syria (AFP) – Syrian forces sent shells crashing into rebel stronghold Rastan on Thursday, May 17, a watchdog said, hours after President Bashar al-Assad branded the armed opposition as “criminals” infiltrated by Al-Qaeda.
Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 30 shells smashed into Rastan in a 10-minute period after midnight, and urged UN observers monitoring a shaky truce to immediately rush to the town in central Homs province.
“The army is trying to gradually destroy Rastan,” Abdel Rahman told AFP.
Encircled by the army and defended by the largest concentration of rebel soldiers in the country, Rastan has for months been the focus of an offensive by the regime as it attempts to regain control of the town.
On Monday, May 14, the UN Supervisory Mission in Syria (UNMIS) reported heavy fighting near Rastan, where activists said at least 23 soldiers and seven civilians died in fierce clashes between government forces and rebels.
Elsewhere Thursday, two blasts rocked the neighborhoods of Al-Jamila and Al-Furqan in Aleppo, while other explosions were heard across the northern city early morning.
There were no immediate reports of casualties, the Observatory said.
Violence by ‘terrorists’ says al-Assad
Clashes continue despite an April 12 truce brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan as part of a six-point plan aimed at ending violence that has swept Syria since March 2011, when the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad erupted.
The Observatory alleged regime troops had this week carried out two “massacres” of civilians — one in Homs city in which 15 civilians were “summarily executed” and another in the town of Khan Sheikhun, in Idlib province, when they gunned down 20 people at a funeral procession.
Assad, in an interview with Russian state news channel Rossia-24, on Wednesday accused the West of ignoring violence by “terrorists” and said he would demand an explanation from Annan when he visits Damascus later this month.
He complained that, since the arrival of the UN observers there had been an increase in “terrorist attacks” despite a reduction in “direct confrontation” between government forces and their foes.
“The West only talks about violence, violence on the government side. There is not a word about the terrorists. We are still waiting,” he said. “I will ask him (Annan) what this is about” when he next visits Syria.
Assad denounced the armed opposition as a gang of “criminals” who he said contained religious extremists, including members of Al-Qaeda. He also said many “foreign mercenaries” from Arab states fighting for the rebels had been killed.
Thousands detained, killed
Syria-linked violence meanwhile flared again Thursday in the north Lebanon port city of Tripoli, where one person was killed and seven wounded, a security official said.
The sectarian clashes erupted in the neighborhoods of Bab al-Tebbaneh and Jabal Mohsen and saw both sides using rockets and machine guns, the official said.
Jabal Mohsen is populated mainly by Alawites loyal to the regime of Assad, who belongs to the same Shiite Muslim sect, while Bab al-Tebbaneh residents support the opposition seeking to oust the president.
Sectarian clashes between residents of the two districts earlier this week left nine people dead and some 50 wounded and sparked fears the revolt in Syria could engulf its tiny neighbor.
State news agency SANA reported that 250 people detained in relation to the revolt in Syria but “whose hands were not bloodied” were released on Wednesday.
According to the Observatory, around 25,000 people are currently detained in Syria. Annan’s peace plan calls for the release of those detained in relation to the uprising.
More than 12,000 people, the majority of them civilians, have died since the Syrian uprising began, according to the Observatory, including more than 900 killed since the truce came into effect.
The UN mission in Syria says it now has 236 military observers in the country. – Agence France-Presse