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Syrian troops detaining thousands

Violence in town of Rastan raises fear of civil war

This official handout photo shows Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun (center) praying over his slain son’s coffin on Sunday. This official handout photo shows Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun (center) praying over his slain son’s coffin on Sunday. (Sana via AFP/Getty Images)
By Zeina Karam
Associated Press / October 4, 2011

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BEIRUT - Syrian troops going house to house have detained more than 3,000 people in the past three days in the rebellious town of Rastan, which saw some of the worst fighting of the six-month-old uprising recently, activists said yesterday.

Over the past week, the military fought hundreds of army defectors who sided with anti-regime protesters in Rastan. The fighting demonstrated the increasingly militarized nature of the uprising and heightened fears that Syria may be sliding toward civil war.

The activist group Local Coordination Committees said fighting in the town has now stopped after a military operation that left dozens dead. The group and a Rastan-based activist said about 3,000 in the town of 70,000 had been detained.

The activist said the detainees are being held at a cement factory, some schools, and the Sports Club, a 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. He said he was hiding in Rastan.

Syria’s opposition movement has until now focused on peaceful demonstrations, although recently there have been reports of protesters taking up arms to defend themselves against military attacks. Army defectors have also been fighting government troops, particularly in Rastan, which government forces retook on Saturday.

The fears of civil war, possibly along sectarian lines, were heightened by the assassination Sunday of the 21-year-old son of Syria’s top Sunni Muslim cleric - the latest in a string of targeted killings.

The state-appointed cleric, Grand Mufti Ahmad Badreddine Hassoun, is considered a loyal supporter of President Bashar Assad’s regime, heading a host of Sunni clergymen who have been a base of support for the president’s ruling Alawite sect.

Hassoun, who has echoed regime claims that the unrest in Syria is the result of a foreign conspiracy, accused the opposition of creating the climate for his son’s killing and blamed anti-Assad Sunni clerics for allegedly issuing fatwas (religious edicts) inciting violence against him.

“My brothers who were misguided and carried arms, you should have assassinated me because some clerics issued such fatwas. Why did you kill a young man who did nothing and harmed no one,’’ Hassoun, holding back tears, said in a sermon at his son’s funeral in the northeastern city of Aleppo, aired on Syrian television stations.

Saria Hassoun’s killing was the latest in a series of targeted executions that included a nuclear engineer, university professors, and physicians.

The other men, a mixture of Alawites, Christians, and Shi’ites, were all killed in the past week, most of them in central Homs province - one of the hotbeds of antigovernment protests.

The regime has accused “terrorist gunmen’’ of carrying out the killings, while the opposition accused the regime of trying to foment sectarian strife to maintain its grip on power.

Syria’s volatile sectarian divide means that an armed conflict could rapidly escalate in scale and brutality.

The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.

Alawite dominance has bred resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity for the state. He has exploited fears of a civil war by portraying himself as the only power who can keep the peace.

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