BEIRUT – Syrian government forces reached an agreement Saturday with local officials of a vulnerable Sunni village in a region dominated by President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect to end hours of deadly shelling in exchange for the surrender of dozens of opposition fighters, an activist group said.
The shelling of al-Mitras began at dawn, killing eight civilians while fierce fighting between rebels and government forces on the outskirts of the village left 20 soldiers dead or wounded, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The violence ended when local officials and dignitaries from the village persuaded dozens of defectors and rebels to surrender to authorities with the promise that they would be freed after repenting.
Such deals have been used in the past to end bouts of heavy fighting as the two sides find themselves stalemated. One ended days of heavy fighting in the central town of Talkalakh, near the border with Lebanon earlier this year.Rights groups and activists had expressed concern that al-Mitras would suffer the same fate as the nearby Sunni towns of Bayda and Banias, where activists allege government troops killed 248 people after days of shelling.
The Western-backed Syrian National Coalition, the main opposition group, expressed fears that "Assad's forces might commit a massacre in the village," which it said has a population of 8,000 and is surrounded by villages that are loyal to the government.
The rebels are outgunned by regime forces, which have gained momentum since President Bashar Assad agreed to relinquish his chemical weapons stocks, averting the threat of imminent U.S. military action. But they often are able to engage in deadly battles.
Syria's civil war has cleaved along the country's sectarian patchwork. Majority Sunni Muslims dominate the revolt, which began in March 2011, while Christians and other Muslim sects have mostly stood behind the regime.
But the opposition itself faces growing divisions and internal fighting as the Western-backed rebels blame al-Qaida linked extremists for tarnishing their image and preventing the U.S. and its allies from providing crucial support.
On Saturday, al-Qaida fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Jabhat al-Nusra clashed with Kurdish gunmen clashes in the northeastern province of Hassakeh, the Observatory said. It had no immediate word on casualties.
Gen. Salim Idris, the commander of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and the Supreme Military Council, met with senior officers from the political Syrian National Coalition on Saturday to call on all factions to close ranks and renounce divisions.
The statement emphasized the need "to expedite the process of unification of all groups of the military wing through the restructuring of the FSA" and called the SNC the "political umbrella of revolutionary action."
It also rejected "any dialogue" with the regime, saying it will only enter negotiations that lead to Assad's resignation.
The meeting came days after 43 rebel brigades around Damascus announced that they were banding together to form a breakaway group called the Jaish al-Islam or Army of Islam under the leadership of the head of one of the most powerful factions, Liwa al-Islam -- another blow to the mainstream political opposition, which is dominated by exiles and accused of not being in touch with events on the ground.
A U.N. resolution has endorsed a roadmap for a political transition in Syria adopted by key nations in June 2012, and called for an international conference to be convened "as soon as possible" to implement it.
But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem put a damper on those efforts, saying senior Damascus government officials would not sit down to talk with the coalition because it had supported the possibility of a U.S. strike.
The conflict has shattered Syria's economy, killed more than 100,000 people and forced over 2 million from their homes.