Monday, April 23, 2018

Syria retakes rebellious town; violence escalates

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian forces overran a mountain enclave near the Mediterranean coast Wednesday, seizing the territory back from rebels as a serious escalation in violence signaled both sides are using more powerful weapons.

With the bloodshed ramping up, France joined the U.N. peacekeeping chief in declaring Syria was in a state of civil war.

"When many groups belonging to the same people tear each other apart and kill each other, if you can't call it a civil war, then there are no words to describe it," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told reporters in Paris.

The battle for Haffa, in the mountains of Latakia province, raged for eight days as regime forces shelled the village to drive out rebels. The operation apparently was part of a larger offensive to retake areas that had fallen into rebel hands.

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.

As the violence spiked, both sides in the conflict appeared to be using heavier weapons.

U.N. observers reported Syrian helicopters were firing on Haffa and other restive areas, and amateur videos posted online by activists suggest the opposition is using powerful anti-tank missiles.

"There are arms being delivered, and on both sides," Fabius said.

Although the Syrian rebels are outgunned by the well-armed Syrian army, weapons have been flowing across the country's borders from neighboring Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon. The rebels also say they buy weapons from Syrian soldiers looking to make a profit.

Tensions over the issue flared Wednesday between the United States and Russia as they traded blame for the violence in Syria.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made an explosive accusation that the "latest information" in U.S. hands is that Russia is sending attack helicopters to Assad's regime. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov fired back by alleging the United States has sent military support to the region.

Lavrov said his government was completing earlier weapons contracts with Syria for air defense systems to be used exclusively for self defense against "an armed attack from the outside."

"We are not supplying either to Syria or anywhere else things that are used in fighting with peaceful demonstrators, in contrast to the United States, which regularly supplies such special means to countries in the region," Lavrov said during a trip to Iran.

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