Syrian government forces 'retake mountain town of Haffa'

UN observers were turned away from Haffa by pro-regime villagers

The Syrian government says its forces have taken control of the western mountain town of Haffa, after fierce fighting with rebels who had held it.

Officials said Haffa had been "purged of terrorists" and calm restored.

Both sides earlier predicted a massacre in Haffa. UN monitors tried to visit the town on Tuesday, but had to turn back after they were shot at.

Meanwhile, Russia has insisted its sale of arms to Syria is "not violating international laws".

On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused Moscow of supplying Damascus with attack helicopters which she said would "escalate the conflict quite dramatically".

But on a visit to Tehran on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a televised news conference that the supply of what he termed "anti-air defence systems" was legitimate.

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The pragmatic view is that if it looks and sounds like a civil war, then it is one”

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A report that he had accused the US of sending arms to the Syrian opposition was later denied by the Russian foreign ministry.

'Security and calm'

On the ground in Syria, the rebel Free Syrian Army said on Wednesday that it had pulled its fighters out of Haffa and nearby villages to spare the residents from further massive bombardments.

Syrian state media said government forces had "restored security and calm to the area".

According to activists, government forces are combing the area and setting fire to houses of known opposition figures.

Both sides have been predicting a massacre at Haffa and blaming the other for it in advance.

Latakia province, where the town is located, has a big Alawite population, from the minority to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.

Analysis

The head of UN peacekeeping, Herve Ladsous, has set the cat among the pigeons in agreeing that the conflict in Syria can now be seen as a civil war.

One problem is that there is no universally accepted definition of civil war, though by most definitions Mr Ladsous is probably right.

The label has been rejected by both sides in the conflict itself, because it puts them on the same level as the other. The government says it is suppressing armed terrorists to restore security, law and order.

The opposition says it is still a peaceful civil uprising which is trying to defend itself against state violence, and that calling it "civil war" is equating victim with killer.

The appellation has not become official UN policy, and the observer mission headquarters in Damascus has reassured the government that the statement did not come from it.

The BBC's Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says it was pro-regime villagers in the area who apparently attacked the UN convoy in Haffa on Tuesday.

The UN monitors are in Syria to observe the implementation of a peace plan brokered by UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. However, a ceasefire which was supposed to have come into effect in April never took hold.

Refugee surge

The upsurge in fighting in Latakia and also in the Idlib area in north-western Syria has led to a sharp increase in the number of refugees entering Turkey, officials say. Around 2,000 people have crossed the border into Hatay province in the past 48 hours, bringing the total to 29,500, a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Of the latest arrivals, 43 were taken to hospital for treatment for wounds.

Meanwhile, a network of anti-government groups, the Local Co-ordination Committees, has reported violence in various parts of Syria on Wednesday.

It said five people had been killed in shelling by government forces in the town of Bosra el-sham near Deraa in the south.

The LCC also said there had been fighting in the city of Rastan, near Homs, and in Deir al-Zour in the east.

Such claims cannot be verified independently as Syria severely restricts journalists' freedom of movement.

Meanwhile, both sides have rejected comments by the head of UN peacekeeping operations, Herve Ladsous, who described the conflict as "a civil war" on Tuesday.

The Syrian government insists it is fighting terror groups and rebels say they are defending a peaceful uprising.

The foreign ministry said: "Talk of civil war in Syria is not consistent with reality... What is happening in Syria is a war against armed groups that choose terrorism."

The UN says at least 9,000 people have been killed since pro-democracy protests began in March 2011.

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