AMMAN (Reuters) - Army defectors fought government troops Sunday in one of the biggest battles of Syria’s nine-month uprising, and a strike shut businesses in a new gesture of civil disobedience, residents and activists said.
In a major international development likely to raise Western pressure on President Bashar al-Assad, France’s Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said Paris believed Syria was behind attacks that wounded French peacekeepers in neighbouring Lebanon Friday.
In Sunday’s fighting, Syrian troops mainly from the 12th Armoured Brigade based in Isra, 40-km from the border with Jordan, stormed the nearby town of Busra al-Harir.
A housewife in Busra who did not want to be named told Reuters by telephone that the town was being hit by machinegun fire from tanks. Her children were crying.
The sound of explosions and heavy machineguns was heard there and in Lujah, an area of rocky hills north of the town, where defectors from the army have been hiding and attacking military supply lines, residents and activists said.
“Lujah has been the safest area for defectors to hide because it is difficult for tanks and infantry to infiltrate. The region has caves and secret passageways and extends all the way to Damascus countryside,” said an activist, who gave his name as Abu Omar.
Opposition activists said they had shut down much of the capital and other towns with a strike, the biggest walkout by workers since the protest movement demanding Assad’s removal erupted in March.
Syria has barred most independent journalists, making it difficult to gauge the extent of participation in the strike. Official state media made no mention of it.
“For the first time we have seen business close in multiple districts in Damascus and spread to most of the suburbs and provinces. The aim is to reach civil disobedience that encompasses all sectors and forces the regime down,” said Rima Fleihan, a member of the opposition Syrian National Council.
“The cost will be more human lives but I am afraid it is less costly than an armed uprising and the regime dragging the country into a Libya-type scenario, she said.
Assad has been widely condemned abroad for what Western and Arab countries describe as a crackdown on peaceful protests. His government says it is defending Syria from a foreign-backed insurgency by armed militants.
Syria has long had strong ties with Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon, where a roadside bomb wounded five French peacekeepers Friday, in the third attack this year on United Nations forces deployed near the frontier with Israel.
“We have strong reason to believe these attacks came from there (Syria),” Juppe said on RFI radio. “We think it’s most probable, but I don’t have proof.”
When asked if he believed Hezbollah had carried out the attack on behalf of Damascus, Juppe said: “Absolutely. It is Syria’s armed wing (in Lebanon).”
There was no immediate response from the Syrian authorities or from Hezbollah, which had condemned the attack.
France has been leading Western efforts to try and force Assad to end the crackdown. Juppe has suggested a need to set up zones to protect civilians, the first proposal by a major Western power for outside intervention on the ground.
Resistance has been fiercest in the central city of Homs. Increasingly in the last several weeks the town has seen sectarian killings and kidnappings between Sunni Muslims, who are the majority in Syria, and members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
One activist in the city said Sunni and Alawite elders from the Homs area had helped win the release of 15 Sunni civilians, including five women, who were abducted and taken to an Alawite village after an officer from the village disappeared.
“Homs has the largest degree of sectarian tension but also the biggest awareness of the disaster it could lead to,” said the activist, who gave his name as Ibrahim.
The United Nations says more than 4,000 Syrians have been killed since March. Assad says the number of dead is far lower and most of them have been from the state security forces.
The official news agency SANA said 13 soldiers killed by “armed terrorist groups” were buried Sunday.
Homs and its countryside were mostly shut down by the strike. Elsewhere, the impact was difficult to gauge.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said security forces had forced shopkeepers to keep shops open in some neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Damascus. This could not be independently confirmed.
“They were taken down to their stores and ordered to open them. They refused and the police smashed open the shop doors,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the British-based rights group.
Central parts of the capital Damascus and the business hub Aleppo seemed calm though there were reports of strikes taking hold in some areas on the outskirts of both cities.
In Cairo, Egypt’s MENA news agency said Arab foreign ministers would meet Saturday to discuss a response to Syria’s conditional acceptance of an Arab peace plan.
Arab states have announced sanctions against Syria for failing to accept their plan, which would include foreign monitors to ensure troops withdrew from cities.
Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Douglas Hamilton and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Dina Zayed and Edmund Blair in Cario; Editing by Peter Graff