* Fighting in southern Damascus near airport
* Activists say Assad militias used human shields
* Opposition and rebels expect greater support
* Muslim Brotherhood criticises U.S. on Islamist radicals
By Erika Solomon and Mariam Karouny
BEIRUT, Dec 11 Up to 200 members of President
Bashar al-Assad's Alawite minority were injured or killed in an
attack on their central Syrian village on Tuesday, activists
said, while to the south rebels and state forces battled for the
outskirts of Damascus.
With a broad grouping of governments opposed to Assad
meeting in Morocco on Wednesday, an official in the Syrian
Muslim Brotherhood criticised the United States for designating
an Islamist rebel group as a terrorist organisation, meaning it
would get no American help in the fight against Assad.
Casualty counts varied for the attack on the village of
Aqrab in Hama province, but several activists said they could
confirm 10 dead. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said
the casualties came during a series of explosions in the town.
Opposition activists posted videos on YouTube in which
survivors said pro-Assad militias had used children as human
shields in the village. However, the accounts could not be
independently verified and the events remained unclear.
Syria's upheaval, which began as a protest movement against
Assad 20 months ago, has turned into a civil war which has now
has killed more than 40,000 people. Majority Sunni Muslims have
mostly led the revolt against Assad while minorities such as the
Alawites, from an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, have largely stood
by the president.
Sectarian bloodshed has previously hit both Hama province,
where Aqrab is located, and neighbouring Homs province. Both
witnessed massacres of hundreds of Sunni residents but Tuesday's
incident, if confirmed, would be the first known large-scale
attack on Alawites.
The opposition-linked Syrian Observatory for Human Rights
said 125 had been hurt or killed but said it was still trying to
find out what happened. There were no reports on Syria's state
An Alawite resident of a nearby village said the violence
began in Aqrab when rebels attacked a checkpoint run by
pro-Assad militiamen, known as shabbiha.
"We don't believe there was a massacre but we think there
are a number of hostages being held. Clashes began when rebels
started shelling the shabbiha checkpoint," he said by Skype.
" Bu t now the phone lines seem to be down in Aqrab so that's all
The circumstances of the attacks are difficult to verify
independently as Syrian authorities tightly restrict the
activities of journalists.
A rebel who said he fought in Aqrab told Reuters that
fighters had surrounded a house with more than 200 people
because shabbiha were there. Th e militiamen had used women and
children as human shields and the house had been shelled by
Assad's forces, he said, without explaining why they would
attack their own side.
Wounded children, apparently Alawites from Aqrab, appeared
at an opposition field hospital in the nearby town of al-Houla,
where they were interviewed by rebels in videos published on
YouTube. Three young boys gave a similar account as the rebel,
but did not say whether they were hiding in the house fearing
government shelling or rebel attack.
"We were inside the house with shabbiha, they said they were
protecting us from the rebels. The rebels started telling us
come out, no one will hurt you. The shabbiha wouldn't let us
leave," said Mohamed Judl, a young boy covered in a blanket,
shivering as he was interviewed by an activist at the clinic.
It was not clear whether the boy was speaking freely.
Rebels clashed on Tuesday with government forces near
Damascus airport, battling for the capital's outskirts in a
conflict which the United Nations said has driven half a million
people from the country since it began in March 2011.
Fighting near the airport, 20 km (12 miles) southeast of
Damascus city centre, is part of a broader confrontation between
the army and rebels who hold a near continuous arc of territory
from the east to the southwest of Assad's power base.
The growing military power of the rebels is matched by the
increasing foreign support for Syria's political opposition
coalition, which expects to win broad recognition at the
international meeting in Marrakech on Wednesday.
The centre of Damascus, shielded for months from the
violence, echoed to the sound of shelling from Monday evening,
residents said. "There were very heavy clashes since yesterday
in the town of Haran, on the eastern side of the airport," said
rebel spokesman Mussab Abu Qitada by Skype from Damascus.
The rebels have seized several military bases across the
country in the last month and are trying to encircle the
capital, where power cuts and food shortages are hurting
residents bracing for winter.
SEEKING WORLD SUPPORT
Assad's political and armed opponents, dogged by splits and
rivalries throughout their battle to end his family's 42-year
rule, have established a more unified political opposition and
military command, hoping to win international recognition and
stronger support on the battlefield.
"All indications on the ground signal the end of the regime
of Bashar al-Assad," leading opposition figure Riad Seif said on
the eve of the Marrakech talks. "We expect this meeting to fully
recognise the coalition as the sole representative of the Syrian
people," he told Reuters.
France, Britain, Turkey and the Gulf states have already
granted the formal recognition. The European Union, in a meeting
on Monday, moved a step closer towards recognition and the
United States has suggested it could also endorse the coalition.
"We are telling the international community that we don't
want their military intervention but we want them to supply us
with a developed anti-aircraft defence systems," Seif added.
"The Syrian people can finish off the battle within weeks if we
get this support."
But little in the way of direct military or financial
support is expected to be channelled to the coalition at the
Morocco meeting, partly because it lacks the ability to act as a
provisional government and because Western powers are still wary
of backing Islamist fighters in the rebel ranks.
Washington announced it had designated the radical Islamist
rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed responsibility
for dozens of car bombs and also fights alongside other rebel
Syrian brigades, as a terrorist organisation.
Designating it a terrorist group means Americans are
prohibited from giving Jabhat al-Nusra any support.
A high-level official in the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood
criticised Washington. "The designation is very wrong and too
hasty. I think it is too early to categorise people inside Syria
this way, considering the chaos and the grey atmosphere in the
country," Farouk Tayfour, deputy leader of the group, told
A diplomat attending the meeting said there had been much
"jockeying for position within the coalition without addressing
the main political issues" including making arrangements to work
with the Alawite, Kurdish and Christian minorities and creating
a framework for transitional justice.
The fighting has driven hundreds of thousands of Syrians
into neighbouring countries and the United Nations refugee
agency UNHCR said on Tuesday more than half a million were
either registered or awaiting registration in the region.