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Middle east

Syrian forces pound rebel bastion of Rastan

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-05-23

Syrian forces shelled the rebel bastion of Rastan on Wednesday, activists said. The besieged Free Syrian Army also denied it was behind the kidnapping of Lebanese pilgrims in the north of the country, as alleged by the Lebanese foreign minister.

AFP - Regime forces launched a fierce assault on the rebel bastion of Rastan in central Syria on Wednesday, raining shells on the town before launching a ground attack, monitors and activists said.

The rebel Free Syrian Army, meanwhile, denied it was behind the kidnapping of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in northern Syria, an incident adding to tensions in neighbouring Lebanon which is already divided into pro- and anti-Damascus camps.

There was no immediate word on possible casualties at Rastan but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said six people were killed on Wednesday in other parts of violence-swept Syria.

The Observatory said troops were trying to storm Rastan under the cover of heavy gunfire, shelling and rocket bombardment, adding that at one stage shells smashed into the town at a rate of "one a minute."

An activist reached via Skype told AFP that Free Syrian Army fighters were defending the Rastan's entrances but that "regime forces are being strengthened with new deployments," including from the elite Revolutionary Guard.

"Electricity has been cut off in Rastan, and water tanks have been shelled," said activist Abu Rawan. "There is also a severe lack of food because the market is closed and we can't bring food in from nearby villages."

Besieged by regime forces for several months, Rastan is home to a large number of rebel fighters, according to opposition sources. Most residents have fled after months of fighting.

On May 14, 23 regular troops were killed in a failed assault.

A revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule broke out in March 2011, prompting a fierce crackdown. More than 12,000 people have been killed in the violence, according to the Observatory.

The raging violence took a broader turn in the region after Lebanon's state news agency said Syrian rebels kidnapped 13 Lebanese Shiite Muslims as they were headed home by bus from a pilgrimage in Iran.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Adnan Mansur said Wednesday the pilgrims were abducted by "a splinter group of the armed Syrian opposition", but added he expected their release "within hours."

The Free Syrian Army strongly denied involvement.

"The FSA is not at all responsible for the operation," Mustafa al-Sheikh, a high-ranking member of the rebel force, told AFP by telephone from Istanbul.

"This is an attempt to distort the image of the FSA," said Sheikh, the head of the group's military council. The kidnapping was "no doubt the work of the regime, which wants to sow chaos."

The main political opposition also issued a call for the prompt release of the pilgrims abducted in northern Aleppo province, adding it too believed the regime could be involved in the kidnapping.

The Syrian National Council "does not think it is impossible that the regime is involved in this operation," in order to sow "disorder" in Lebanon, the group said.

But Lebanese women pilgrims who arrived in Beirut early on Wednesday said the kidnappers presented themselves as members of FSA. "They terrorised us," said one of them.

The case has triggered fears of sectarian tensions in Lebanon over the Syrian conflict.

The news prompted their families and thousands of supporters to pour out into the streets of Beirut's mainly Shiite southern suburbs on Tuesday night to demand their release.

Lebanese Shiite leader Hassan Nasrallah, a strong ally of the embattled regime in Damascus, appealed for calm and said his militant party Hezbollah was doing its utmost to ensure the safe release of the men.

"I call on everyone to show restraint," Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

On Wednesday, Iran's charge d'affaires in Damascus, Abbas Golrou, said three Iranian truck drivers have also been abducted by "armed opposition groups" in Syria.

"They entered Syria via Turkey on road, without consulting the embassy... They were attacked and abducted by armed opposition groups" on Monday, Golrou said, quoted by Iranian media.

Lebanon's northern Akkar region has also seen protests this week after the weekend killings of two clerics at an army checkpoint in Akkar, a mainly Sunni region whose inhabitants are hostile to Assad.

The killings ignited street battles in the capital Beirut on Monday that left two people dead and 18 wounded.

Russia warned on Wednesday of the Syrian conflict spilling over to Lebanon, calling on all parties to avoid fresh unrest at all costs.

"There is a real threat of the conflict spilling over to Lebanon, where, considering history, the ethnic and religious makeup of the population, and the principles on which Lebanon's government is based, everything can have a very bad ending," Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Similarly, Saudi King Abdullah has warned of "the gravity of the crisis and its potential to escalate into a sectarian conflict in Lebanon, dragging it back into the spectre of civil war."

Date created : 2012-05-23

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