BEIRUT (Reuters) - Islamist rebels battled Syrian government forces on Tuesday to retain control of a historic Christian town which the insurgents has stormed a day earlier, residents said.
“There is a huge on-off battle here now, the army even used fighter jets,” said one female resident of Sadad, a town that was mentioned in the Bible.
The town is located amid several villages that support the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
It also lies next to several arms depots and opposition activists said the raid by the al Qaeda linked-rebels was for military reasons, not religiously motivated.
The clashes could nevertheless raise anxieties among the Christian minority, who have generally tried to stay on the sidelines of sectarian conflict pitting majority Sunni Muslims against the Alawite minority and which has overshadowed the revolt against four decades of Assad family rule of Syria.
“After rebels stormed the town yesterday, they entered the main square and spoke to us on loudspeakers, telling us to stay inside. They killed anyone found in the streets,” said a resident named Elias, speaking by phone. “They didn’t come inside people’s homes though.”
Residents estimated that nine people were killed then.
They also said no government soldiers or paramilitary forces other than police had been in Sadad. Opposition activists said the town was used to launch rockets into nearby rebel-held areas.
Sources on both sides said another aim of the rebel assault was to break into Sadad’s hospital to seize medical supplies.
One resident said that by Tuesday morning the rebels seemed to have disappeared.
“We assumed it was because the army was on its way. It turned out they were in hiding in the orchards and the fields and they ambushed the army when it came,” one woman said, declining to give her name.
Sadad is strategically located between the central city of Homs, 60 km (37 miles) away, and the capital Damascus, 100 km (62 miles) away.
Reuters cannot always confirm reports inside Syria due to government and security restrictions.
Writing by Erika Solomon; Editing by Angus MacSwan