Rebels take strategic Syria town
Rebels thrust into a strategic town in Syria's central Hama province today, activists said, pursuing a string of territorial gains to help cut army supply lines and cement a foothold in the capital Damascus to the south.
They have made a series of advances across the country, seizing several military installations and more heavy weaponry, hardening the threat to President Bashar al-Assad's power base in Damascus 21 months into an uprising against his rule.
Rebels said a day earlier they had captured at least six towns in Hama province. Today heavy fighting erupted in Morek, a town on the highway that runs from Damascus north to Aleppo, Syria's largest city and another battleground.
The opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels were trying to take checkpoints in Morek, one of which they had already seized, and described the town as a critical position for the Syrian army.
"The town of Morek lies on the Damascus-Aleppo road ... it has eight checkpoints and two security and military headquarters. If the rebels were able to control the town they would completely sever the supply lines between Hama and Damascus to Idlib province," the group said in an email.
Idlib is in the rebel-dominated north bordering on Turkey.
The British-based Observatory has a network of activists across the country. Activist reports are difficult to verify, as the government restricts media access into Syria.
Fighting in Hama could aggravate Syria's sectarian strife as it is home to many rural minority communities of Alawites and Christians. Minorities, and particularly the Alawite sect to which Dr Assad himself belongs, have largely backed the president.
Syria's Sunni Muslim majority has been the engine of the revolt.
"Rebels are trying to take Mohardeh and al-Suqaylabiya, which are strongholds of the regime and are strategic. The residents are Christian and the neighbouring towns are Alawite. The rebels worry security forces may be arming people there," said activist Safi al-Hamawi, speaking on Skype.
He said the opposition feared skirmishes that had previously been largely Sunni-Alawite could spread into a broader sectarian conflict.
"I think it is still unlikely, because the residents have tried to maintain neutrality, but if the battle became a sectarian clash, it could be a catastrophe. Christians and Muslims could suddenly find themselves enemies."
UN human rights investigators said Syria's conflict was becoming more "overtly sectarian", with more civilians seeking to arm themselves and foreign fighters - mostly Sunnis - flocking in from 29 countries.
"They come from all over, Europe and America, and especially the neighbouring countries," said Karen Abuzayd, one of UN investigators, told a news conference in Brussels.
The deepened sectarian divisions may diminish prospects for post-conflict reconciliation even if Dr Assad is ousted, and the influx of foreigners raises the risk of fighting spilling into neighbouring countries riven by similar communal fault lines.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Assad's main ally and arms supplier, warned that any solution to the conflict must ensure government and rebel forces do not merely swap roles and fight on forever. It appeared to be his first direct comment on the possibility of a post-Assad Syria.
The West and some Arab states accuse Russia of shielding Assad after Moscow blocked three UN Security Council resolutions intended to increase pressure on Damascus to end the violence, which has killed more than 40,000 people. Putin said the Syrian people would ultimately decide their own fate.
Dr Assad's forces have been hitting back at rebel advances with bouts of heavy shelling, particularly along the eastern ring of suburbs outside Damascus, where rebels are dominant.