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Syria claims regime forces retake control of rebellious Haffa region after 8 days of clashes
BEIRUT (AP) ' Syrian forces pushed out scores of rebels holed up in a rebellious area near the Mediterranean coast Wednesday and state television claimed they retook control of the region following eight days of fierce shelling and clashes.
The mountainous Haffa region is one of several areas where government forces are battling rebels for control in escalating violence. Recovering it is particularly important to the regime because the town is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from President Bashar Assad's hometown of Kardaha in Latakia province. Latakia is the heartland of the Alawite minority to which Assad and the ruling elite belong, although there is a mix of religious groups there.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland warned two days ago that Assad's forces could commit massacres in Haffa, drawing condemnation from the Syrian Foreign Ministry which accused the U.S. of "blatant interference" in the country's internal affairs.
With violence ramping up, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said Tuesday that the conflict had escalated into a civil war, prompting a denial from the Syrian Foreign Ministry which expressed "astonishment." The ministry said the statement lacked objectivity, was "far from reality" and inaccurate.
"Syria is not witnessing a civil war but rather an armed conflict to uproot terrorism and confront killings, kidnappings, bombings ... and other brutal acts by armed terrorist groups," the ministry said. Syrian authorities often refer to rebels fighting to oust Assad as terrorists.
State television claimed regime forces had "cleansed" Haffa from "armed terrorist groups."
Hundreds of rebel fighters were believed to have been holed up there and pulled out overnight after intense fighting in Haffa and nearby villages. The rebel fighters fled the villages of Zanqufa, Dafil and Bakkas under the cover of night, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing a network of activists on the ground.
It was not immediately clear whether U.N. observers in Syria would be able to reach Haffa. On Tuesday, an angry crowd hurled rocks and sticks at the observers' vehicles as they approached the area, forcing them to turn back. The observers were not hurt. Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the observers, said they have been trying to reach Haffa since June 7.
On another front, fireballs of orange flames exploded over the central city of Homs, where Syrian forces fired a continuous rain of shells that slammed into the rebel-held neighborhoods of Khaldiyeh, Jouret al-Shayyah and the old city.
But even after a week of intense shelling, rebels were still clinging to the area. Footage posted by activists from there showed a city covered in a plume of heavy grey smoke. The intermittent thud of shells was heard, followed by explosions as they slam into buildings.
In the nearby town of Deir Baalbah, rebels and troops exchanged fire in residential areas, with rapid snaps of sustained gunfire echoing through the area, according to amateur video that purported to be from the scene.
Turkey said it was concerned that the conflict could spill over its borders as the number of Syrian refugees increased to more than 29,000.
"We are disturbed by the possibility that it could spread to us," Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru told state-run TRT television. Koru said 1,400 more Syrian refugees arrived in the past two days in Turkey.
Activists say more than 13,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict so far.
The state news agency, SANA, said "an armed terrorist group" killed the former head of the Syrian Football Union, Marwan Arafat. SANA said Arafat was attacked as he returned from Jordan to the neighboring southern province of Daraa. It said his wife was critically injured, but offered no other details.