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Syrian troops reclaim most of central rebel town

By Bassem Mroue
Associated Press / October 2, 2011

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BEIRUT - Syrian troops retook most of a rebellious central town yesterday after five days of intense fighting with army defectors who sided with protesters in one of the worst clashes of the 6-month-old antigovernment uprising, a 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 outpouring against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in mid-March with rallies by peaceful, unarmed protesters. Attacks by proregime gunmen and Syrian military forces have failed to stop the demonstrators from continuing to take to the streets.

The fighting in Rastan began with a government assault on 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 on Friday.

Land and cellular telephone services to Rastan were cut yesterday, 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 yesterday, 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.

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