BEIRUT -- After a week of reported clashes with rebels, Syrian forces have “restored security and calm” to the strife-ridden western highland town of Haffah in coastal Latakia province, the official Syrian news service reported Wednesday.
Syrian authorities were pursuing “armed terrorist groups” — as the government refers to insurgents — into neighboring villages, “leading to the killing of many terrorists” and the arrest of others, reported the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
Opposition activists say the military had been besieging the formerly rebel-controlled area in the hills east of the important coastal city of Latakia. The opposition accused the military of bombarding residential areas with artillery, tanks and attack helicopters. The U.S. State Department warned of a possible massacre of civilians by pro-government forces in Haffah.
Syrian officials accused the rebels of committing “heinous crimes” in the town, including murdering civilians, burning a hospital, looting and vandalism.
Reports from opposition activists on Wednesday also indicated that insurgents had been pulling back from Haffah. Neither the official accounts nor the opposition statements could be independently verified because the Syrian government restricts the access of outside media to the conflict zones.
The government push in Haffah appeared to be part of a broader offensive to regain control of towns and neighborhoods across the nation that had fallen into the hands of rebels seeking the ouster of President Bashar Assad.
The struggle for Haffah heightened tensions between Damascus and the United Nations, which is trying to broker a cease-fire in Syria.
On Tuesday, the world body reported that an angry, apparently pro-government crowd pelted a U.N. observer convoy with stones and prevented its entry into Haffah. Shots were later fired at its vehicles, the U.N. said, but no staffers were hurt.
The government news agency accused U.N. vehicles of running over three area residents, leaving two of them critically injured. The citizens “were trying to explain their suffering due to the acts of the armed terrorist groups,” the official news agency said.
On Wednesday, in an apparent move to defuse the tension, the Foreign Ministry invited the U.N. observer team to visit Haffah.
But the government also refuted comments by the U.N. peacekeeping chief, French diplomat Herve Ladsous, that Syria was experiencing a civil war. Damascus calls the conflict a war against "terrorists" and a “foreign conspiracy.”
Sectarian tensions appear to have inflamed matters in Haffah, located in the middle of Latakia province.
Rural Latakia is considered the heartland of Syria’s Alawite sect, which is fiercely loyal to Assad — who, like much of his military and security leadership, is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. His late father, Hafez Assad, a former air force officer, ushered in Alawite rule in 1970, elevating the long-marginalized sect to the pinnacle of power.
Reports indicate that Haffah’s residents are largely Sunni Muslim, but some nearby villages are mostly Alawite. The rebellion has emerged from Syria’s Sunni majority, some of whose members have long resented Alawite domination.
On the political front, a spokesman for Kofi Annan said the U.N. special envoy had urged diplomats to “twist arms if necessary” to pressure all parties in the Syrian conflict to implement his faltering six-point peace plan, which includes a cease-fire and steps toward a political transition in Syria. The plan has been widely ignored, with each side blaming the other for its failure.
“Diplomacy has intensified from all parties,” the spokesman, Ahmad Fawzi, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: This image made from amateur video released by Free Latakia purports to show Syrians preventing U.N. observers from entering Haffah, Syria. Credit: Free Latakia via Associated Press.