BEIRUT // Syrian rebels captured four Alawite villages on the country's mountainous Mediterranean coast yesterday as they battled government troops in one of President Bashar Al Assad's strongholds for the second straight day, activists said.
Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominate Mr Al Assad's regime. The capture of villages in their heartland in Latakia province is a symbolic blow to the president, whose forces have otherwise been taking territory in recent weeks in central Syria.
Syria's conflict has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone in the last year, pitting predominantly Sunni rebels against the Alawite-dominated regime.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels captured the villages after attacking government outposts in the Jabal Al Akrad hills on Sunday. The group, which relies on reports from activists, said at least 32 government troops and militiamen and at least 19 rebels, including foreign fighters, died in Sunday's fighting.
Much of Latakia has been under the firm control of Assad's forces since the beginning of the conflict more than two years ago, but some areas including the Jabal Al Akrad are close to rebel-held areas and have seen fighting.
It was a rare success for the rebels on the battlefield in recent weeks. Regime forces have been on the offensive since taking the central town of Qusair in June, and last week captured a key district in the central city of Homs, an opposition stronghold.
Syria main's opposition bloc hailed the rebel advance, and said that Mr Al Assad's troops had used the villages to attack rebel-held civilian areas.
The Observatory's chief, Rami Abdul-Rahman, said civilians in the four villages fled. There were no immediate reports of civilian casualties in the fighting.
Meanwhile, at the site of one of the regime's victories in Homs, the Syrian defence minister Gen Fahd Jassem Al Freij toured the ravaged district of Khaldiyeh yesterday, praising troops for what he told state TV was a "military miracle".
Standing in front of the historic Khalid bin Al Waleed mosque in Khaldiyeh, Gen Al Freij vowed the army would "triumph against this universally-backed terrorism which is being exported to us."
More than 100,000 people have been killed since the conflict started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Mr Al Assad's rule. It turned into an armed uprising after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.
Human Rights Watch said yesterday ballistic missiles fired by the Syrian army into populated areas have killed hundreds of civilians in recent months.
The US-based group said it had investigated nine apparent missile attacks that killed at least 215 people, half of them children, between February and July. The most recent attack HRW investigated occurred in the northern province of Aleppo on July 26, killing at least 33 civilians including 17 children.
HRW activists visited the sites of seven of the nine attacks and found no apparent military targets nearby, the group said. Ole Solvang, a senior researcher with HRW, said it was impossible to distinguish between civilians and fighters when firing missiles with wide-ranging destructive effects into densely populated areas.
"Even if there are fighters in the area, you cannot accurately target them and the impact in some of these cases has been devastating to local civilians," Mr Solvang said.
The HRW called on Mr Al Assad to stop indiscriminate attacks.
In his latest public appearance late on Sunday, Mr Al Assad called on the Syrians to unite behind the army's efforts to "defend their homeland".
"There is no solution with terrorism but to strike with an iron fist," he was quoted as saying by state news agency Sana. "With this kind of battles that aim at the destruction of the cultural identity and the Syrian national fabric, we either win together as Syrians or lose together."