Witnesses say that Syrian government forces, backed by tanks, have gained ground inside the rebel town of Rastan. The military operation against hundreds of defectors, backed by residents of the town, began five days ago, amid heavy artillery bombardment.
The battle by Syrian government forces to retake Rastan - near the country's third largest city of Homs - entered its fifth day Saturday with intermittent reports that rebel military units defending the town had lost ground, amid a fierce ground assault, backed by intense shelling.
Communications to the besieged town remain cut off, but several residents told al-Jazeera TV by satellite phone that conditions inside the town were becoming desperate, with food and medicine running short.
The battle to retake Rastan has taken on symbolic importance for the government, anxious to contain the mutiny by rebel soldiers calling themselves the “Free Syrian Army.” Experts say close to 10,000 soldiers have defected, out of an army of 400,000.
Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, explains the strategic importance of the battle for Rastan.
He says that Rastan is the home town of Syria's former Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass and his son, who were once staunch supporters of the government. He adds that while Rastan is a small town of 45,000 people, and home to hundreds of (Sunni-muslim) army officers - as opposed to President Assad's Alawite sect. He argues that the government wants to crush the rebellion in Rastan, before it spreads to other parts of the country.
Elsewhere, anti-government protesters skirmished with security forces in several suburbs of the capital Damascus, Saturday, amid reports of several deaths in the Qadam neighborhood.
Opposition sources also claim that government security forces attacked the flashpoint town of Sanamein, near Diraa, and that army tanks entered Talbisa, near Homs, amid heavy shelling. Firefights were also reported between security forces and defectors near the northern city of Hama.
The former general prosecutor of Hama, Adnan Bakkour, who resigned in August to protest the brutal government crackdown, urged the West to come to the rescue of the Syrian people:
He says that the Syrian opposition is urging the embassies of the Western world to support the opposition for their own interests, the interests of the region and Syrian interests.
Veteran Syrian opposition leader Haitham Maleh told al-Arabiya TV that over 5,000 protesters have been killed since the popular uprising began in March, more than 100,000 have been arrested, and 20,000 have fled to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
Maleh also said that opposition leaders were meeting in Istanbul Saturday to choose what he called a “shadow government” in exile. Al-Arabiya TV reported that a 24-member executive committee would be chosen from both inside and outside the country.