BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels pulled out of villages around the besieged mountainous town of Haffa after days of fierce shelling, a rights group said Wednesday. The withdrawal came as the government accused the U.S. of "interference" for expressing concern that the regime could carry out more killings in that area.
The rebel fighters fled the villages of Zanqufa, Dafil and Bakkas under the cover of night, said Rami Abdul-Rahman, of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing a network of activists on the ground.
It was not possible to independently verify his claims, because reporters have not been able to independently work in Syria since the uprising against Bashar Assad's regime began 15 months ago.
The withdrawal suggested the regime was poised to retake Haffa, which has been shelled fiercely for days as have nearby villages in the coastal, mountainous province of Latakia. The shelling killed members of two families who had huddled into a house for shelter earlier this week.
The rebel pullout came as Syria lashed out at the United States after Washington warned of possible mass killings in Haffa.
Syria's foreign ministry said the remarks by a State Department spokeswoman warning that President Bashar Assad's forces could commit massacres in Haffa coincided with stepped-up attacks by rebels in the area. The ministry's statement was reported Wednesday by the state-run news agency, SANA.
"The U.S. administration is continuing its blatant interference in the internal affairs of Syria, its open support for the terrorists, covering up the terrorists' crimes," the statement said.
Haffa is one of several areas where Syrian government forces are battling rebels for control. It is particularly important, because the town is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) from Assad's hometown of Kardaha in Latakia province along the Mediterranean coast. Latakia is the heartland of the Alawite minority to which Assad and the ruling elite belong, although there is a mix of religious groups.
Syria's Sunni majority makes up the backbone of the opposition, and minorities such as Alawites and Christians have generally stuck to the sidelines, in part out of fears that they will be marginalized — or even face retribution — if Sunnis take over.
Heavy shelling also continued Wednesday in the rebel-held suburbs of Khaldiyeh in the central city of Homs overnight, Abdul-Rahman said. Despite a week's intense shelling, however, Syrian rebels are still clinging to the area. Footage posted by activists from there showed a city covered in a plume of heavy grey smoke. Intermittent thud of shells can be heard, followed by explosions as they slam into buildings.
In the nearby town of Deir Baalbah, rebels and Syrian troops exchanged fire in residential areas, with rapid snaps of sustained gunfire echoing through the area, according to amateur video said to be from the scene.
It was not immediately clear if U.N. observers in Syria would be able to reach Haffa. On Tuesday, an angry crowd hurled rocks and sticks at the observers' vehicles as they approached the area, forcing them to turn back. The observers were not hurt. Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for U.N. observers in Syria, said the monitors have been trying to reach Haffa since June 7.
Meanwhile, Turkey said Wednesday it was concerned that the conflict in Syria could spill over its borders as the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey increased to more than 29,000.
"We are disturbed by the possibility that it could spread to us," Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru told state-run TRT television. Koru said 1,400 more Syrian refugees arrived in the past two days in Turkey, increasing the total number to more than 29,000.
Activists say more than 13,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict so far. It is not clear how many government forces have been killed — Abdul-Rahman said his tally suggested some 3,400 soldiers had died in the fighting as well.