Syrian troops 'attack rebel-held town'

 

Syrian troops shelled a rebel-held town, sparking intense clashes that sent bloodied victims flooding into hospitals and clinics, activists said.

The violence in Rastan, in the restive central Homs province, and elsewhere around the country is eroding an internationally brokered peace plan that many observers see as the last hope to calm the 14-month-old crisis.

An amateur video showed a young girl who apparently suffered shrapnel wounds in her thigh undergoing treatment in a makeshift Rastan hospital while screaming in pain. Asked where her mother was, the girl cries: "She died."

Rastan, just north of Homs, has been under rebel control since January. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the activist network called the Local Coordination Committees said the latest shelling of Rastan started on Sunday.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the Observatory, said the rebels were able to destroy several army vehicles during the clashes and kill soldiers. The accounts could not be independently confirmed.

The attack on Rastan came after Syrian forces killed at least five people when they raided a Sunni farming village in Hama province, torching homes and looting shops in what appeared to be a sign of worsening relations among the country's religious groups.

Syria is overwhelmingly Sunni, but President Bashar Assad and the ruling elite belong to the minatory Alawite sect. Sectarian tensions appear to be growing in some areas, adding a dangerous new element to the violence.

Many Syrians accuse Assad of exploiting that divide by unleashing Alawite gunmen known as "shabiha" who operate as hired muscle for the regime. The government blames the bloodshed on armed gangs and extremists acting out a foreign plot to destabilize Syria.

Tensions stemming from the Syrian uprising also have touched off clashes across the border in Lebanon, in the northern city of Tripoli.

Street battles pitting Lebanese Sunnis — who generally support the Syrian uprising — against Alawite supporters of Assad's regime killed one person today, raising the death toll to four since Sunday. The clashes began Sunday after authorities detained an anti-Syrian Lebanese national.

The violence further undermines a UN-backed peace plan that is supposed to bring an end to Syria's deadly crisis. A cease-fire that was supposed to begin on April 12 has had only a limited effect, throwing into doubt the rest of the plan that calls for talks between Assad's regime and those seeking to end his rule.

Also today, the Observatory and the LCC said government troops stormed the Damascus suburb of Qaboun where they conducted raids and deployed snipers on roofs of buildings.

In Damascus, state-run TV said the results of last week's parliamentary elections will be made public on Tuesday. The government has praised the vote as a milestone in promised political reforms, but the opposition boycotted the polls and said they were designed to strengthen Assad's grip on power.

Syria's uprising started in March 2011 with protests calling for political reform. The government brutally cracked down on dissent, and many in the opposition have since taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops. Some soldiers also have switched sides and joined forces with the rebels.

World powers have backed the peace plan for Syria, which was put forward by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, but the bloodshed has not stopped. More than 100 U.N. observers have been deployed in Syria to oversee the truce between the government and armed rebels.

AP

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