BEIRUT (AP) — Government troops have regained full control of a village in central Syria after ousting rebels accused of killing dozens of people there, state media said Tuesday as activists reported an explosion in a southern town killed at least 18 people.
The SANA state news agency said government troops seized control of the village of Maan in Hama province on Monday after destroying the last “hideouts of terrorists, who came into the village and committed a massacre.” The government refers to rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad as terrorists.
Syria’s nearly three-year-old conflict has grown increasingly sectarian, pitting a rebellion dominated by the country’s Sunni Muslim majority against Assad’s government and its security forces, which are stacked with members of the leader’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Opposition activists have also reported sectarian killings in Maan earlier this month. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 40 people, most of them Alawites, were killed when hard-line, anti-Assad Islamic fighters overran the village Feb.9.
In southern Syria, a blast in the town of Muzayrib in Daraa province killed at least 18 people, including four children, the Britain-based Syria Observatory for Human Rights activist group said. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said it was unclear whether the explosion was a car bomb or an airstrike.
In the neighboring province of Quneitra, the army was reinforcing its positions in an effort to dislodge rebels from the area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Abdurrahman reported heavy fighting in the hilly area just south of Quneitra city, the provincial capital. He said the army is bringing more tanks, heavy artillery and troops to the region that has been under control of hard-line Islamic rebel groups for months.
The government’s apparent showdown with the rebels in the south comes a day after Syrian opposition named a news military chief. Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir hails from southern Syria and was an army commander in Quneitra until 2012 when defected to the opposition.
The Observatory also reported heavy government shelling of Yabroud, the last rebel-held town near Syria’s border with Lebanon. Yabroud is located in the mountainous Qalamoun region. Government troops, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have been on a crushing offensive there since early December, trying to sever a main thoroughfare for rebels from Lebanon.
At U.N. headquarters in New York, Security Council ambassadors met behind closed doors into the early evening Tuesday to discuss how – and whether – rival resolutions on the worsening humanitarian crisis can be melded into a single text that could win approval by the council, which has been deeply divided over Syria.
A Western and Arab-backed text threatens sanctions if demands, including immediate humanitarian access to all areas of Syria, aren’t implemented within 15 days, but a rival Russian text doesn’t mention sanctions or any kind of enforcement.
Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private, said the issue of enforcing a resolution remains a major sticking point.
Argentina’s U.N. Ambassador Maria Cristina Perceval said members did agree on a number of provisions, but not her proposal to stop providing arms to both sides.
Lithuania’s U.N. Ambassador Raimonda Murmokaite, the current council president, said she expects the co-authors of the Western and Arab text – Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan – to produce an updated version “hopefully tomorrow.”
Several diplomats expressed hope for a vote this week, but Murmokaite said this week is “too early.”
While Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said there were “good negotiations,” he told reporters: “I think setting timelines is really not very productive.”