Pro-Assad forces regain rebel Syrian town: agency

Sat Oct 1, 2011 6:20pm EDT
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By Dominic Evans

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian troops regained control of the central town of Rastan, the official news agency said on Saturday, after the most prolonged fighting between the army and insurgents in a six-month uprising.

"Calm and security have returned to Rastan after security police backed by army units entered the town and confronted the terrorist groups who have terrified its inhabitants," the agency said.

The town was the scene of large protests demanding the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and had been under the control of army defectors and other insurgents in the last few weeks.

Government forces, backed by tanks and helicopters, moved on the town of 40,000, which lies 110 miles north of Damascus on the main highway to Aleppo, on Tuesday.

Local activists said that members of the Khaled bin al-Walid Battalion, the main defector unit defending Rastan, withdrew from the town after it came under tank shelling and heavy machine gun fire.

The battalion, named after the first Arab conqueror of Syria, was formed last month as defectors began to organize and mount guerrilla attacks against security forces and a pro-Assad militia, known 'shabbiha'.

Assad is a member of Syria's Alawite minority sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam that dominates the army, security apparatus and power structure in the mostly Sunni Muslim country of 20 million at the heart of the Middle East.

He has blamed the violence on armed gangs backed by foreign forces, and his officials say 700 police and soldiers have been killed, as well as 700 "mutineers."   Continued...