Rebels smuggle civilians from Haffeh

UN observers say too dangerous to enter Syrian town

Rebels in Syria's embattled western town of Haffeh said on Tuesday they were scrambling to smuggle out civilians trapped amid heavy shelling, as U.N. monitors said the violence made it too dangerous for them to approach the area. 

Three fighters contacted by phone said that hundreds of rebels who have joined a 15-month-old uprising against President Bashar Al Assad are bearing the brunt of a tank and helicopter-backed assault on their district, which is tucked among rugged foothills near Syria's Mediterranean coast. 

 "Every few days we manage to open a route to get out the wounded, so some families were able to escape yesterday," said a rebel who called himself Abdulwudud. "We're trying to move the families all out so they can flee to Turkey," about 25 km away. 

International envoy Kofi Annan said on Monday he was worried residents were trapped in Haffeh, while the United States said it feared a "potential massacre" was underway, after two reported mass killings in other provinces over the past three weeks. 

The Syrian foreign ministry on Tuesday responded with anger, accusing the United States of "blatant interference in internal Syrian affairs," noting that the U.S. statement had coincided with what it called an escalation in attacks by "terrorists" on Syrian cities.   

Rebels said they had sent civilians to the outskirts of Haffeh when the eight-day siege began, but that those areas were now also being shelled. The army and pro-Assad militia men were surrounding Haffeh, they added.  

Annan demanded access to Haffeh for U.N. observers, who are monitoring a battered ceasefire deal declared two months ago that has been brazenly disregarded. 

But observers who went to the area said they had decided not to enter Haffeh itself, deeming it too dangerous. 

Clashes in Haffeh started last Tuesday between rebels and security forces who were setting up checkpoints to tighten their grip on the strategic town - it lies close to the port city of Latakia, as well as to the Turkish border which has been used by rebels to smuggle people and supplies. 

 The British-based Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists across Syria, said Assad loyalists had formed a human blockade to stop monitors from approaching Haffeh. 

But the state news channel, Syria TV, said U.N. monitors in the area were ignoring residents "who tried to describe their sufferings because of the armed terrorist group," and said that a U.N. car had hit three people as it sped away. 

Syria TV also accused rebels of plotting to kill government loyalists and of trying to make it look like a massacre by government forces in Haffeh. As evidence, it played what it said was a recorded phone call between a man in Syria and a Syrian man in neighbouring Turkey. 

"Kill the hostages and prisoners we have ... and put a video on the Internet like it is a massacre by the regime, and let the boys fabricate some news," one voice said.  

It was impossible to verify the recording. Information from Syria is hard to confirm because the government restricts access to international media.      

The Observatory said 29 civilians, 23 rebels and 68 soldiers have been killed in the fighting in Haffeh since June 5. Dozens were wounded in heavy shelling on Tuesday, it added.    

Rami Abdulrahman, the group's director, said state forces were intent on seizing control of the rebel-held town: "The question is, at what price?" 

The army has suffered heavy losses, activists say, in part because of the mountainous terrain which makes it difficult to move tanks and heavy weapons, which exposes them to rebel attack. 

Despite that advantage, rebel fighter Abdulwudud said opposition units were isolated and plagued by bad organisation, as their communication lines were regularly cut. 

State news agency SANA said security forces were "continuing to chase down the terrorist remnants that attacked Haffeh and nearby areas," adding that several rebels had been killed or arrested. 

A rebel commander from the Free Syrian Army based on the Turkish border said humanitarian aid was desperately needed. 

"The situation is dire. Forget the weapons, people need medicine and food. As you know, we're in a state of war in Syria. The army could enter Haffeh in minutes if it wanted but it is trying to crush it instead."