Syrian army, rebels trade blows at Qusayr in cease-fire breach

McClatchy NewspapersApril 18, 2012 

— Rebels here fought the Syrian military Wednesday in a breach of a U.N.-sponsored cease-fire that was rare primarily because it was witnessed by an independent journalist who’d entered the country surreptitiously earlier this week.

The fighting began in this city near the Lebanese border in the early afternoon after a group from the Free Syrian Army, the name claimed by most of the rebels who’ve taken up arms against the government of President Bashar Assad, attacked a military convoy near the city.

Fighters here had said earlier this week that they were respecting the cease-fire brokered by U.N. Syria envoy Kofi Annan at the behest of Riad al Assad, a Syrian army colonel who defected and is now the nominal leader of the rebels in Turkey.

The fighting in Qusayr took place as a U.N. monitoring team visited Douma, a site of frequent clashes between the rebels and the military on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria’s capital.

In Hama, another site of frequent violence north of Homs, anti-government activists reported two deaths Wednesday and a number of demonstrations against the government. They also reported that the military was increasing the number of checkpoints between Hama and Idlib, a city in the country’s north that rebels had held until March and that’s part of the rebel supply line from Syria’s border with Turkey.

The fighters in Qusayr, most of whom belong to the Farouq Brigade, the Free Syrian Army’s largest group, accused the government of violating the terms of the cease-fire by increasing the number of troops in the area during the past week. They said that shelling, which has been heard and seen in nearby villages frequently since Sunday, was intended to protect the government forces as they set up checkpoints along main roads here in hopes of disrupting rebel movements.

As tanks began shelling Qusayr, rebels here grabbed their weapons and headed in the direction of the fighting. They were obviously mismatched, as they loaded nothing heavier than rocket-propelled grenades into a pair of pickups and a sedan whose windows had been shot out in a previous battle.

“We are still respecting the cease-fire,” said Mohammed Idris, a commander in the Farouq Brigade here. “What is going on now is defense.”

U.N. officials, hopeful of giving the cease-fire time to take hold as they increase the number of monitors in Syria, have said that isolated violations are to be expected. But reports indicated that government shelling hadn’t stopped in Homs, the country’s third largest city, since the cease-fire went into effect and that the daily death toll was creeping upward throughout the country after violence subsided briefly in the first few days of the cease-fire. An estimated 70 people were killed Tuesday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group that tracks casualties. According to the group, 44 of those died in heavy shelling in the northern city of Idlib.

The Farouq Brigade is best known as the rebel force that took control of the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs late last year and held it until early March, when it withdrew after 26 days of fierce government bombardment.

In Qusayr, a town of about 35,000, the Farouq Brigade has controlled roughly half the city since September, while the Syrian military controls the other half. Most residents fled months ago.

A battle here in mid-March resulted in heavy shelling that damaged a number of buildings, but little change in the front lines. The cemetery that opened here after the rebellion began a year ago holds the bodies of about 200 people, 50 of whom died in the last month. Anti-government activists said that only 10 of those buried in the cemetery had died fighting, and the rest were civilians or soldiers who attempted or were suspected of attempting to defect from the military. There’s no way to confirm their story.

The fighting Wednesday appeared to have had little effect on the dynamics in the city. After a brief clash, the military pulled back and opened fire with tanks and mortars. Though rebel fighters were visible on the streets, the shelling didn’t appear to target them, hitting instead various buildings in the rebel part of the city.

The makeshift hospital on the rebel-held side of Qusayr reported one death and four injuries as a result of the fighting. All casualties were civilians, according to medical personnel at the hospital. One mortar round landed close enough to the hospital to break its windows.

Inside the hospital lay a pair of wounded youths, one 10 years old. He was found in the street after a shell landed.

“We don’t know who this boy is,” a nurse said. Her identity is being withheld for her safety.

The hospital itself is a testament to the trouble in the city. Since Syrian government security forces occupied the city’s main hospital seven months ago, most of the wounded in Qusayr have come to the rebel hospital for treatment. Perhaps 30 people whose ailments would have been treatable at the main hospital died as a result, a doctor at the hospital said Tuesday.

On Monday, hundreds of residents marched through the streets in a funeral procession for a young man who was killed by shelling on the outskirts of the city. He was in his house on the rebel-held side of the city at the time.

“Nobody will help us but God!” the residents chanted as they made their way to the cemetery. “The regime is corrupt and the enemy of God!”

Demonstrations take place daily in Qusayr, but the one planned for Wednesday was canceled as gunfire and shelling echoed into the early evening.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has documented the most extensive list of casualties since the uprising began, has recorded more than 10,000 deaths, nearly 8,000 of them civilians.

(Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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