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Syria rebels appeal to world as hilltop town comes under attack

A Syrian rebel army chief urged the world Tuesday to protect civilians in Syria, as a group of embattled rebel fighters tried to hold onto a hill town that has become a hub of revolt.
/ Source: news services

A Syrian rebel army chief urged the world Tuesday to protect civilians in Syria, as a group of embattled rebel fighters tried to hold onto a once-relaxed Syrian hill resort that has become a hub of revolt against President Bashar Assad's rule.

One rebel armed with a semi-automatic rifle described conditions for residents of Zabadani near the Syrian-Lebanese border.

"Every day we have a funeral...Every day their tanks fire on us," he told Reuters.

"God willing we won't let them enter this town. God willing they won't enter as long as we are breathing," he said as fighters pointed their guns over brick roofs and scanned the concrete homes sprawling down frozen hillsides.

The town of 40,000 people was attacked by troops backed by tanks Friday; 40 people were wounded but the offensive failed, at least at first, to regain control.

A nascent insurgency of armed rebels and army deserters, who call themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is overshadowing what began as peaceful protests. They say they are only trying to defend civilians against attack.

Monitors have 'failed'
In Turkey, Riad al-Asaad, the rebel commander, called for international intervention to replace the Arab observer mission and protect ordinary Syrians.

"The Arab League and their monitors failed in their mission and though we respect and appreciate our Arab brothers for their efforts, we think they are incapable of improving conditions in Syria or resisting this regime," he told Reuters by telephone.

"For that reason we call on them to turn the issue over to the U.N. Security Council and we ask that the international community intervene because they are more capable of protecting Syrians at this stage than our Arab brothers," Asaad said.

The world's big powers have proved unable to stop the bloodshed in Syria, where U.N. officials say more than 5,000 people have been killed and Damascus says its security forces have lost 2,000 dead.

The leader of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was quoted Sunday as saying Arab troops should be sent to Syria to stop the deadly violence — the first statements by an Arab leader calling for the deployment of troops inside Syria.

However, Syria's Foreign Minister said the Assad regime "absolutely rejects" any plans to send Arab troops into the country.

"The Syrian people reject any foreign intervention in its affairs, under any title, and would confront any attempt to infringe upon Syria's sovereignty and the integrity of its territories," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The government says terrorists are behind the uprising — not reform-seekers — and that armed gangs are acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country.

'Whole country is bleeding'
Syria's state media, SANA, said Tuesday that an "armed terrorist group" launched rocket-propelled grenades at an army checkpoint late Monday, killing an officer and five army personnel about 6 miles southwest of Damascus.

A Syrian lawmaker told Reuters on Monday he had fled the country to join the opposition after losing hope that Assad would enact reforms or stop the violence.

"Blood is in the streets," said Imad Ghalioun, from the restive city of Homs, who took refuge in Cairo two weeks ago.

"The whole country is bleeding. I do not think there will be any reforms because the young people have taken their decision," he said. "This is a revolution and there is no going back."

Zabadani used to be a summer getaway when Damascus residents would flee the capital's muggy heat for a weekend in the cooler air of the country town just 19 miles away. Wealthy Gulf Arabs would come to relax in their holiday villas.

Now some homes have holes blasted in their walls with rooms reduced to rubble, their windows shattered and roofs sagging.

"We have five women in hospital, in intensive care because of rocket fire here," said one activist, pointing to a wrecked staircase in one house. "Where are the Arab League monitors?"

The masked fighters in Zabadani, who repelled the initial army attack with the help of snowy weather, are seen in video footage taken by Reuters last week patrolling empty streets, their breath clouding from the cold as they chat with drivers of the few cars that passed.

Assad 'is a donkey'
Other FSA gunmen zip through the town blaring protest songs over their car speakers and communicating by radio.

"I saw a bus down the street with about 34 people in it, we don't know it, maybe you should check it," one gunman shouts into his walkie-talkie.

Another gunman stops his car to paint over pro-government slogans written in black graffiti on a concrete wall. He shakes his can of white paint and changes a slogan supporting the president to instead read "Bashar is a donkey".

The footage shows residents flaunting their rebellion, painting their walls with the green, white and black Syrian independence flag and unfurling banners over their homes with a plain message for Assad: "Leave."

Some had evidently anticipated an army attack.

One young activist stood on her balcony and pointed at snowcapped foothills that lead to Damascus.

"They need 30 minutes to get here and if the guys see them coming they set off fireworks, we'll hear about it immediately," she said. "Then we get ready."