Syrian Troops Retake Most of Central Rebel Town

BEIRUT -- Syrian troops retook most of a rebellious central town Saturday after five days of intense fighting with army defectors who sided with protesters in one of the worst clashes of the 6-month-old anti-government uprising, a rights group said.

Rami Abdul-Rahman, head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the troops spread out across Rastan after defectors pulled out of the town.

The army defections as well as reports that once-peaceful protesters are increasingly taking up arms to fight the government crackdown have raised concerns of the risk of civil war in a country with a deep sectarian divide.

The outpouring against President Bashar Assad's regime began in mid-March with rallies by peaceful, unarmed protesters. Attacks by pro-regime gunmen and Syrian military forces have failed to stop the demonstrators from continuing to take to the streets.

The fighting in Rastan began with a government assault on Tuesday.

An activist who spoke with a Rastan resident able to flee the town Friday quoted him as saying the fighting was so heavy residents had to hide in their homes. Rights activists said 250 tanks and other army vehicles entered the town on Friday.

Land and cellular telephone services to Rastan were cut Saturday, making it impossible to get information from residents still inside.

In nearby areas, residents said the main highway linking the central city of Homs with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, had been closed for days because of the fighting.

The London-based Observatory said three people died of their wounds Saturday, a day after they were shot by security forces. One of the men died in Talbiseh, near Rastan, while the two others died in the Damascus suburbs of Qudsaya and Harasta, the group said.

A military official said Friday that the clashes in Rastan killed seven soldiers and policemen. Thirty-two other troops were wounded, the official said.

The comments by the unidentified official were carried by state-run news agency SANA on Friday and were a government acknowledgment of the stiff resistance in Rastan.

The Syrian government has banned foreign journalists and placed heavy restrictions on local media coverage, making it difficult to independently verify events on the ground. The U.N. says some 2,700 people have already died in the crackdown since mid-March.

The Observatory said the death toll was approaching 3,000. Abdul-Rahman said that as of Saturday, 2,325 civilians have been killed as well as 656 members of the army and security forces.

The army defectors involved in battles in the Rastan area and in the Jabal al-Zawiyah region in the northern Idlib province number around 2,000, according to a prominent rights activist who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Rastan is the hometown of former Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, a longtime friend of late President Hafez Assad, the current president's father. Tlass, who was defense minister for 31 years until 2003, had been one of the late Assad's closest aides and comrades-in-arms for more than four decades.

The town of Rastan, from which the Syrian army draws many of its Sunni Muslim recruits, has seen some of the largest numbers of defections to date.

Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making this kind of civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.