Syrian army pounds Haffa as rebels say pullout tactical; NATO rules out intervention

The city of Homs has been exposed to intensive shelling by the Syrian government forces. (Reuters)

While Syrian government helicopters and tanks are pounding the western town of al-Haffa and the surrounding villages, ground troops are rounding up young men and looting houses, according to Syrian rebels who have fled to Turkey.

The withdrawal of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) from the besieged town of al-Haffa in Lattakia is tactical to avoid more killings among civilians, Al Arabiya reported on Wednesday citing a statement by the rebel army, as NATO chief said that foreign military intervention was “not the right path” in Syria.

The statement said that al-Haffa and the surrounding villages have been exposed to continual shelling by the Syrian government forces and its “shabbiha” militias for eight successive days, causing big damages in the area’s infrastructure and shortages in water and electricity supplies.

Leader of the Syrian Free Army, Col. Riyadh al-Asaad. (File photo)

As the Free Syrian Army is keen to avoid any more massacres to be committed by the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad against civilians, orders have been given to FSA fighters to withdraw from the town and its suburbs and to evacuate the killed victims and the injured civilians, who include women and children, the FSA statement said.

FSA Chief Riyadh al-Asaad had told Al Arabiya in a phone call that the Syrian regime has become hysterical after it failed to control several regions.

Recovering at a hospital in the Turkish city of Antakya, a wounded Free Syrian Army fighter described the assault on al-Haffa by government forces and how he was shot trying to rescue the wounded.

“First, helicopters attack the villages, later the tanks attack, and then at the end soldiers enter the houses, loot them and set fire to them,” said Mohammed, a 25-year-old fighter who had been shot through the shoulder.

At least 50 wounded have been smuggled across the border to Turkey from Haffa over the past few days but many more are trapped by fierce fighting and those that try to escape are fired on by President Assad’s forces, according to rebels in the southern Turkish province of Hatay.

Not the right path

Meanwhile, NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Wednesday that foreign military intervention was “not the right path” in Syria despite the U.N.’s peacekeeping chief declaring the country in civil war.

Rasmussen said there were “no plans at this stage” for a NATO operation, as he condemned the U.N. Security Council failure to reach agreement as a “big mistake,” saying Russia could have an “instrumental role” in brokering peace.

“A foreign military intervention is not the right path in Syria,” the NATO chief said in a speech to Australian journalists, calling instead for a political solution.

“Having said that, I strongly condemn the behavior of the Syrian security forces and the crackdown on the civilian population.”

“It is absolutely outrageous what we are witnessing and (there is) no doubt that the regime in Syria is responsible for violations of the international law,” he added.

“I strongly urge the Syrian leadership to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people and introduce freedom and democracy.”

Rasmussen, who is on a diplomatic visit to close NATO ally Australia, said he was not sure “from a legal point of view” whether what was happening in Syria could be considered a civil war, as claimed by U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous.

“But definitely and very clearly the situation is Syria is very serious, and we have seen horrendous acts conducted by the regime and forces loyal to the regime and I strongly condemn these acts.”

Activists say some 14,100 people have now been killed in the uprising against the Assad family, which has ruled Syria for some four decades.

Rasmussen also had a “very clear message” for Russia, saying it could play an instrumental role in facilitating a political solution and had a responsibility to wield its influence “and live up to (its) international obligations.”

“I strongly regret that the U.N. Security Council failed to reach an agreement on a legally binding resolution on Syria. I think that failure sends a very unfortunate, not to say dangerous, signal to the Assad regime,” he said.

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