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.”
Activists and human rights campaigners say loyalist forces are killing an average of 10-20 civilians every day.
One of the activists told Reuters that Rastan remained sealed while “state media stage their version of events” but that at least 130 people, both insurgents and civilians, have been reported killed in the assault since Tuesday.
“The Khaled bin al-Walid battalion took a decision to withdraw from Rastan to spare the town further killings,” he said, adding that they included 12 insurgents from the Ali bin Abi Taleb brigade of defectors in the nearby region of Houla, across the Orontes river.
He said six loyalist soldiers were killed in attacks by the defectors in Houla on Saturday, and that troops later sealed the agricultural regional center and arrested 30 villagers.
Another activist said that troops and pro-Assad militiamen have occupied hospitals and clinics in Rastan and converted schools into detention centers now holding hundreds of villagers, in line with tactics used in assaults on numerous cities and towns across Syria.
An official statement said on Friday that seven soldiers and police were killed in a military operation against “terrorists” in Rastan. “The units responsible have inflicted big losses on the armed terrorist groups,” the statement said.
Rami Abdel-Rahman, head of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said a force of 250 tanks was sent to Rastan.
The United Nations says Assad’s crackdown has killed 2,700 people since the mostly peaceful protests erupted in March, inspired by Arab revolts which have toppled three Arab rulers in North Africa and rattled leaders across the Middle East.
The United States and Europe have condemned what they described as brutality by the Syrian authorities and imposed sanctions on the country’s small but key oil sector.
The oil embargo, combined with a slump in tourism revenues and falls in foreign investment and trade, have pushed Damascus to take drastic steps to protect currency reserves.
Last week it barred most imports apart from basic goods and raw materials. It has also tried unsuccessfully to barter crude oil for badly needed fuel.
The United States, which had been trying to re-engage with Assad and loosen the close alliance he had with Iran before the outbreak of the unrest, has condemned the crackdown on protests and pushed for United Nations sanctions on Damascus.
Relations hit a new low on Thursday when Assad supporters threw stones and tomatoes at U.S. ambassador Robert Ford’s convoy as he visited an opposition figure in Damascus.
Ford and his party were uninjured but several embassy vehicles were damaged and Ford had to lock himself in an office to await help from Syrian security, U.S. officials said.
Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman summoned Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha to the State Department on Friday and “read the riot act about this incident,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
Syria, irked by Ford’s meetings with opposition figures, accused Washington of inciting violence and meddling in its affairs. Washington demanded that Syria take steps to protect U.S. diplomats.
Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington and Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman; Editing by Michael Roddy