Islamist rebels fight army for Christian town in Syria


BEIRUT, Oct 22 (Reuters) - Islamist rebels battled Syriangovernment forces on Tuesday to retain control of a historicChristian town which the insurgents has stormed a day earlier,residents said.

"There is a huge on-off battle here now, the army even usedfighter jets," said one female resident of Sadad, a town thatwas mentioned in the Bible.

The town is located amid several villages that support theuprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

It also lies next to several arms depots and oppositionactivists said the raid by the al Qaeda linked-rebels was formilitary reasons, not religiously motivated.

The clashes could nevertheless raise anxieties among theChristian minority, who have generally tried to stay on thesidelines of sectarian conflict pitting majority Sunni Muslimsagainst the Alawite minority and which has overshadowed therevolt against four decades of Assad family rule of Syria.

"After rebels stormed the town yesterday, they entered themain square and spoke to us on loudspeakers, telling us to stayinside. They killed anyone found in the streets," said aresident named Elias, speaking by phone. "They didn't comeinside people's homes though."

Residents estimated that nine people were killed then.

They also said no government soldiers or paramilitary forcesother than police had been in Sadad. Opposition activists saidthe town was used to launch rockets into nearby rebel-heldareas.

Sources on both sides said another aim of the rebel assaultwas to break into Sadad's hospital to seize medical supplies.

One resident said that by Tuesday morning the rebels seemedto have disappeared.

"We assumed it was because the army was on its way. Itturned out they were in hiding in the orchards and the fieldsand they ambushed the army when it came," one woman said,declining to give her name.

Sadad is strategicly located between the central city ofHoms, 60 km (37 miles) away, and the capital Damascus, 100 km(62 miles) away.

Reuters cannot always confirm reports inside Syria due togovernment and security restrictions.

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