Arab League monitors in Syria 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/via Reuters Tv/Handout)
AMMAN - Unrest in Syria cost at least 15 lives on Friday and troops
backed by tanks attacked Zabadani, a town near the border with Lebanon,
an opposition leader said, in the first big military assault since Arab
League monitors arrived last month.
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The League chief said he feared a 10-month-old struggle to topple President Bashar al-Assad could slide into civil war.
The Arab League mission to Syria has been struggling in recent days,
with some of its observers starting to leave in protest of continuing
violence directed against anti-government protesters by security forces
loyal to Assad.
"Tanks are bombarding the town and have entered the outskirts, but they
are being met with resistance," Kamal al-Labwani, an opposition leader
from Zabadani who fled to Jordan two weeks ago, told Reuters. "The Free
Syrian Army (army defectors) has a strong presence in the area."
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said seven civilians were shot
dead, four of them in the restive city of Homs. Three others died,
including two wounded earlier in the week.
A total of five security personnel, including a lieutenant colonel, were
killed and 15 wounded by "armed terrorist groups" in two separate
attacks in Homs and the countryside around Damascus, the state news
agency SANA reported.
"The people want the downfall of the regime," shouted a crowd in the
port of Latakia at one of several anti-Assad demonstrations that erupted
after Friday Muslim prayers.
Syrians have kept up a campaign to end four decades of Assad family rule
since March despite a crackdown by the authorities that the United
Nations says has killed more than 5,000 people.
Some, including army deserters, have taken up arms in recent months.
Syrian authorities say foreign-backed "terrorists" have killed 2,000
soldiers and police since the revolt began.Violent clashes raise fear of civil war
Armed clashes, now punctuating what began as a non-violent protest
movement, have raised fears of a full-scale conflict in Syria, a Sunni
Muslim-majority country of 23 million which also has Alawite, Druze,
Christian and Kurdish minorities.
"Yes, I fear a civil war and the events that we see and hear about now
could lead to a civil war," said Nabil Elaraby, head of the Arab League,
which deployed monitors on Dec. 26 to check whether Syria was
respecting an Arab peace plan.
"Any problems in Syria will have consequences for the neighboring states," he told Egypt's Al-Hayat television.
Syria, which borders Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Israel, is at the
heart of the conflict-prone Middle East, where its closest allies are
Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah group.
"The Syrian authorities must respond to the legitimate democratic
aspirations of the Syrian people," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who
is visiting Lebanon, was quoted as saying by the Beirut newspaper
He also urged the Security Council, where Russia and China have blocked firm action on Syria, to speak with one voice.
The most senior Syrian officer to defect to the opposition told Reuters
that desertions were wearing down the army, but that rebels could take
more than a year to topple Assad.
General Mostafa Ahmad al-Sheikh said that up to 20,000 soldiers, mostly
Sunnis, had left despite "iron controls", although most were more
focused on evading capture by the secret police than on fighting the
He said the revolt would take longer than those that toppled leaders in
Libya, Egypt and Tunisia because Assad retains the loyalty of elite
forces from his minority Alawite sect.