BEIRUT - Rebels in Syria's embattled western town of Haffeh said on Tuesday they were scrambling to smuggle out civilians trapped amid heavy shelling, as UN monitors said the violence made it too dangerous for them to approach the area.
Three fighters contacted by phone said that hundreds of rebels who have joined a 15-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad are bearing the brunt of a tank and helicopter-backed assault on their district, which is tucked among rugged foothills near Syria's Mediterranean coast.
"Every few days we manage to open a route to get out the wounded, so some families were able to escape yesterday," said a rebel who called himself Abdulwudud. "We're trying to move the families all out so they can flee to Turkey," about 25 km away.
International envoy Kofi Annan said on Monday he was worried residents were trapped in Haffeh, while the United States said it feared a "potential massacre" was underway, after two reported mass killings in other provinces over the past three weeks.
The Syrian foreign ministry on Tuesday responded with anger, accusing the United States of "blatant interference in internal Syrian affairs," noting that the US statement had coincided with what it called an escalation in attacks by "terrorists" on Syrian cities.
Rebels said they had sent civilians to the outskirts of Haffeh when the eight-day siege began, but that those areas were now also being shelled. The army and pro-Assad militia men were surrounding Haffeh, they added.
Annan demanded access to Haffeh for UN observers, who are monitoring a battered ceasefire deal declared two months ago that has been brazenly disregarded.
But observers who went to the area said they had decided not to enter Haffeh itself, deeming it too dangerous.
Clashes in Haffeh started last Tuesday between rebels and security forces who were setting up checkpoints to tighten their grip on the strategic town - it lies close to the port city of Latakia, as well as to the Turkish border which has been used by rebels to smuggle people and supplies.
The Sunni Muslim town is in the foothills of the coastal mountains which form the heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.