Pro-Assad forces regain rebel Syrian town
Beirut, October 2, 2011
Syrian troops regained control of the central town of Rastan, the official news agency said on Saturday, after the most prolonged fighting between the army and insurgents in a six-month uprising.
"Calm and security have returned to Rastan after security police backed by army units entered the town and confronted the terrorist groups who have terrified its inhabitants," the agency said.
The town was the scene of large protests demanding the removal of President Bashar Al-Assad and had been under the control of army defectors and other insurgents in the last few weeks.
Government forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, moved on the town of 40,000, which lies 180 km (110 miles) north of Damascus on the main highway to Aleppo, on Tuesday.
Local activists said that members of the Khaled bin al-Walid Battalion, the main defector unit defending Rastan, withdrew from the town after it came under tank shelling and heavy machine gun fire.
The battalion, named after the first Arab conqueror of Syria, was formed last month as defectors began to organise and mount guerrilla attacks against security forces and a pro-Assad militia, known 'shabbiha'.
Assad is a member of Syria's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that dominates the army, security apparatus and power structure in the mostly Sunni Muslim country of 20 million at the heart of the Middle East.
He has blamed the violence on armed gangs backed by foreign forces, and his officials say 700 police and soldiers have been killed, as well as 700 "mutineers".
Activists and human rights campaigners say loyalist forces are killing an average of 10-20 civilians every day. One of the activists told Reuters that Rastan remained sealed while "state media stage their version of events" but that at least 130 people, both insurgents and civilians, have been reported killed in the assault since Tuesday.
"The Khaled bin al-Walid battalion took a decision to withdraw from Rastan to spare the town further killings," he said, adding that they included 12 insurgents from the Ali bin Abi Taleb brigade of defectors in the nearby region of Houla, across the Orontes river.
He said six loyalist soldiers were killed in attacks by the defectors in Houla on Saturday, and that troops later sealed the agricultural regional centre and arrested 30 villagers. - Reuters