Monday, August 19, 2013

Assad's forces push back rebels in Syria's Alawite mountains

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian army and militia troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have pushed back a rebel offensive in the mountain heartlands of his Alawite sect, officials and activists said on Monday, after days of heavy fighting and aerial bombardment.

The assault by Islamist rebels on the northern edges of the Alawite mountains overlooking the Mediterranean drove hundreds of Alawite villagers out to the coast and marked a major challenge to Assad's reassertion of power over central Syria.

But the Syrian president, battling a two-year uprising which has descended into a devastating civil war, sent reinforcements to the rugged area of northern Latakia to repel the attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said Assad's forces have retaken all the military observation posts which rebels had seized when they launched their offensive two weeks ago, and regained control of nine Alawite villages.

The army was still trying to recapture two villages, the observatory's head Rami Abdelrahman said, adding that heavy fighting continued on Monday.

State news agency SANA said the army had "dealt with the last terrorist groups" in the area and seized their weapons.

Rebels killed 200 people, mostly civilians, and drove hundreds from their villages in the first three days of the assault, activists said. They also shot down a military jet, according to amateur video footage released on Sunday.

At one stage a rebel commander said the rebels had reached within 20 km (12 miles) of Qardaha - Assad's hometown and the burial place of his father Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria with an iron fist for three decades.

In a gesture of support for the rebel fighters, and a sign of the symbolic significance of their advances, the head of the Free Syrian Army was filmed visiting Latakia province last week.

But the army and pro-Assad National Defense Force militia fighters pushed the rebels back, killing many fighters including foreign Arab jihadists who formed part of the al Qaeda-linked brigades on the rebel front line.

Jets have also bombed the Sunni Muslim town of Salma which was the launchpad for the rebel attack against the Alawite villagers, a minority sect that is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Syria's conflict, which has killed more than 100,000, began as peaceful protests demanding Assad's ouster but is now marred by rising sectarian bloodshed between Sunnis and Alawites.