- Associated Press - Monday, October 3, 2011

BEIRUT — Syrian troops going house to house have detained more than 3,000 people in the past three days in a rebellious town that government forces recently retook in some of the worst fighting of the 6-month-old uprising, activists said Monday.

The activist group Local Coordination Committees said fighting has stopped in the central town of Rastan, which the government retook Saturday. The military operation there left dozens dead and more than 3,000 in custody, the group said.

A Rastan-based activist confirmed the number, telling the Associated Press by telephone that the detainees are being held at a cement factory, as well as some schools and the Sports Club, a massive, four-story compound.

“Ten of my relatives have been detained,” said the activist, who asked that he be identified only by his first name, Hassan, for fear of retaliation. He said was he speaking from hiding in Rastan.

“The situation in the town is miserable,” he said, adding that the population of some 70,000 was heavily bombed for five days starting Tuesday when the army launched an offensive.

Syrian army soldiers carry the coffins of comrades killed in recent violence in the country during a funeral procession on Oct. 1, 2011, at the military hospital in Homs, Syria. (Associated Press/SANA)
Syrian army soldiers carry the coffins of comrades killed in recent violence ... more >

Syrian activists say the fighting in Rastan pitted the Syrian military against hundreds of army defectors who sided with the anti-regime protesters calling for President Bashar Assad’s ouster. The clashes in Rastan were among the worst the country has seen since the uprising began in mid-March and raised fears Syria is sliding toward a Libyan-style civil war.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, who heads the London-based Syrian Human Rights Organization, said many people have been arrested in Rastan, but the numbers are difficult to confirm. He said the number could be between 500 and 2,000.

Communications with Rastan have been cut for the past few days and were spotty Monday. The Syrian government has banned foreign journalists and placed heavy restrictions on local media coverage, making it difficult to independently verify events on the ground.

Hassan said that as of Sunday, the regime brought thousands of workers to Rastan to clean the streets and rebuild damaged areas in what appeared to be an attempt to cover the damage caused by intense shelling. He added that food was also brought into the town.

Syrian state-media said troops took control of Rastan after hunting down “armed terrorists” holed up inside. But the fighting there highlighted the increasingly militarized nature of an uprising started months ago by peaceful protesters.

The uprising began in mid-March amid a wave of anti-government protests in the Arab world that have so far toppled autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Assad has reacted with deadly force that the U.N. estimates has left some 2,700 people dead.

Also Monday, funeral processions were held for the 21-year-old son of Syria’s top Sunni Muslim cleric, who was killed a day earlier in an ambush in a restive northern area.

The cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, is considered a loyal supporter of Assad’s regime. He told hundreds attending the funeral at a mosque in the northern city of Aleppo that the opposition should stop working against Syria from abroad.

“Come and say whatever you want here and if anyone rejects it, I will be with you in the opposition,” said Hassoun, his voice shaking, in an apparent reference to steps taken by Assad to allow the formation of political parties and promises of free elections. “You want freedom, you want justice? Then come here and build it with us in Syria.”

Hassoun, who has echoed regime claims that the unrest is the result of a foreign conspiracy, blamed fatwas or religious edicts by clerics living abroad for the death of his son. He did not name the clerics or say where they were based.

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