23 troops killed, EU slaps new sanctions on Syria

AFP , Monday 14 May 2012

At least 23 soldiers killed and dozens injured in fierce clashes between Syrian regime forces and armed rebels in the central city of Rastan; European Union foreign ministers agree fresh sanctions against Al-Assad regime

Syrian army soldiers hold the Syrian revolution flags as they stand in front their armored personnel carrier shortly after they defected and joined the rebels in Homs province (Photo: AP)

Fierce clashes between regime forces and armed rebels in central Syria Monday killed 23 Syrian soldiers and wounded dozens, a watchdog said, as the EU slapped fresh sanctions on the Damascus regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said three troop carriers were destroyed in the clashes that began at dawn on the outskirts of Rastan, a city located in restive Homs province.

Regime forces launched an offensive on the city at the weekend but have met with sharp resistance from rebels seeking the ouster of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

The Observatory said dozens had been wounded in shelling of the city by Syrian troops.

Monday's killings come despite a month-old ceasefire brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan as part of a six-point plan aimed at ending violence that has swept Syria since March last year when a popular revolt erupted against Assad's regime.

Part of the plan includes the deployment in flashpoint areas of around 300 UN military observers. By Sunday, 189 observers were on the ground, the UN mission in Syria said.

Despite the presence of the observers, more than 50 people were killed across Syria at the weekend in raids and shelling attacks by regime forces on rebel strongholds, and in clashes between soldiers and armed rebels, the Observatory said.

More than 12,000 people, the majority of them civilians, have died since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, according to the watchdog, including more than 900 killed since the April 12 truce.

Syria-linked violence has also spilled across the border into Lebanon, with four people killed since Saturday during sectarian clashes in the northern port city of Tripoli, according to officials.

Fighting flared in Tripoli again on Monday leaving one person dead and nine wounded, a security official told AFP.

He said the victim died in the neighbourhood of Jabal Mohsen, populated mainly by members of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Battles first erupted on Saturday between residents of Jabal Mohsen and the nearby neighbourhood of Bab al-Tebbaneh -- populated mainly by Sunni Muslims opposed to Assad's regime -- after security forces arrested a Sunni Islamist on suspicion he was linked to a terrorist organisation.

On the diplomatic front, European Union foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on Monday agreed fresh sanctions against Syria, the 15th round so far to protest the relentless repression of dissidents by Assad's regime.

An EU statement issued at a meeting of ministers from the 27-nation bloc said they adopted "sanctions against the Syrian regime" but gave no details.

An EU diplomat confirmed however that the ministers agreed to slap an assets freeze and visa ban on two firms and three people believed to provide funding for the regime.

Twin suicide bombings in Damascus on Thursday that killed 55 people and wounded 372 have raised fears that extremist elements are taking advantage of the deadlock in Syria to stoke the unrest.

Al-Nusra Front, an Islamist group unknown before the Syrian revolt, released a video on Saturday claiming responsibility for the Damascus attacks as revenge for regime bombing of residential areas in several towns and to avenge Sunnis killed by forces loyal to Assad, a member of the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Claims by the group, including for past bombings, have been difficult to verify.

State media have accused the West and its regional allies of opening the door to Al-Qaeda through its backing of the opposition.

Analysts believe that while Al-Qaeda itself does not exist in Syria, several splinter groups of jihadists who employ the same strategies as the network are operating there.

"Law and order are also breaking down in Syria, which means that we should expect the spread of radical groups," Middle East analyst Joshua Landis writes in his blog.

Whatever their identity, the perpetrators of these attacks are "using signature Al-Qaeda tactics," said Mathieu Guidere, a France-based analyst who specialises in the Arab and Muslim world.

He added that "simultaneous attacks are the trademark" of the network founded by Osama bin Laden.

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