Rebels in Syria’s embattled western town of Haffeh said on Tuesday they were struggling to smuggle out civilians trapped in fierce fighting that has drawn international condemnation.
Three fighters contacted by phone said that hundreds of rebels who have joined the 15-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad are fighting a tank and helicopter-backed assault on their district, tucked among rugged mountains near Syria’s Mediterranean coast.
International envoy Kofi Annan said on Monday he was worried residents were trapped in Haffeh and demanded immediate access for U.N. observers. The United States warned of a “potential massacre”, after two reported mass killings in neighboring provinces in the past three weeks.
Rebels said they had sent civilians to the outskirts of Haffeh when the 8-day siege began, but now those areas were also under fire. They said the army and militia men loyal to Assad had surrounded the area.
“Every few days we manage to open a route to get out the wounded, so some families were able to escape yesterday,” said one rebel who called himself Abdulwudud. “We’re trying to move the families all out so they can flee to Turkey,” about 25 km (15 miles) away.
Clashes 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 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.
The clashes quickly spiraled into an assault by security forces. Annan demanded entrance into Haffeh for United Nations observers, who are monitoring a battered ceasefire deal declared two months ago but barely observed.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, said 29 civilians, 23 rebels and 68 soldiers were killed in the fighting since June 5.
Dozens have been wounded, it added. Among those hurt were two journalists from the pro-government Ikhbariya TV channel, Syria’s state news agency said.
The Observatory’s director Rami Abdulrahman said state forces were intent on seizing control of the rebel-held town.
“The question is, at what price?”, he said.
The army has suffered heavy losses, activists say, because of the mountainous terrain which makes it difficult to move tanks and heavy weapons, which opens them up to rebel attack.
Rebel fighter Abdelwudud said despite those gains, opposition units were isolated and plagued by bad organization, as their communication lines were regularly cut.
A rebel commander from the Free Syrian Army based on the Turkish border said humanitarian aid was desperately needed.
“The situation is dire. Forget the weapons, people need medicine and food. As you know, we’re in a state of war in Syria. The army could enter Haffeh in minutes if it wanted but it is trying to crush it instead.”