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EU agrees new Syria sanctions; clashes kill 23 troops amid fresh scuffles in Lebanon

Syrian soldiers who defected to join the Free Syrian Army in front of their armoured military vehicle at Khalidieh in Homs.

By Al Arabiya & Agencies | 14 May 2012

European Union foreign ministers agreed fresh sanctions against Syria on Monday, the 15th round so far against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, as 23 Syrian troops were killed in heavy clashes in the Syrian town of Rastan.

An EU statement issued shortly after ministers from the 27-nation bloc began talks in Brussels said they had adopted “sanctions against the Syrian regime” but gave no further details, AFP reported.

Meanwhile, twenty-three Syrian soldiers were killed in the town of Rastan on Monday in heavy clashes with rebels who destroyed three armored personnel carriers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Earlier, opposition sources said a local rebel commander was among scores killed in heavy army shelling of Rastan, Reuters reported.

“Shells and rockets have been hitting the town since three a.m. (midnight GMT) at a rate of one a minute. Rastan has been destroyed,” a Free Syrian Army (FSA) member in the town who declined to be named told Reuters by satellite phone.

The town, 25 km (15 miles) north of the city of Homs, is a major recruiting ground for Sunni conscripts who provide most of manpower in the military, which is dominated by officers from Assad’s minority Alawite sect.

The area was scene of the first serious armed confrontations between army defectors and loyalist forces last year. Assad’s forces regained control of the city several times but it has kept slipping back into rebel hands.

The town lies about 180 km (110 miles) north of Damascus, among farmland and wheat fields on the Orontes River and on the northern highway leading to Aleppo.

Its strategic location and the terrain has helped deserters from disparate units mount raids against army buses and roadblocks manned by Military Intelligence and pro-Assad militia, opposition activists said.

Tension in Lebanon

In Lebanon, two people were killed and 20 others were wounded in the northern city of Tripoli in fresh sectarian clashes linked to the unrest in neighboring Syria, a security official told AFP.

He said the victim died in the neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen, populated mainly by members of Assad’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Battles first erupted on Saturday between residents of Jabal Mohsen and the nearby neighborhood of Bab al-Tebbaneh -- populated mainly by Sunni Muslims opposed to Assad’s regime -- after security forces arrested a Sunni Islamist on suspicion he was linked to a terrorist organization.

The fighting in Tripoli, 70 km (43 miles) from Beirut, highlights how sectarian tensions in Syria can ignite conflict in Lebanon. Buildings in the area are still riddled with bullet holes from similar clashes earlier in the year.

Among the deaths at the weekend was a soldier hit by sniper fire. Sporadic fighting also took place between armed Sunnis and the Lebanese army near a main Sunni district, and many of Tripoli's main intersections were blocked by burning tires.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni Muslim from Tripoli, met religious leaders in the city on Sunday in an attempt to defuse the situation, and local leaders were due to meet later on Monday for more talks to calm the tension.

Tension in Tripoli had been on the rise since last week when Sunni Islamists held a sit-in to protest the arrest of a man who Lebanese authorities said had been in contact with an unnamed “terrorist organization.”

Islamists say Shadi al-Moulawi was arrested because he was working with Syrian refugees.

A statement by al-Jamaa al-Islamiya, an Islamist group in Tripoli, criticized the arrest as lacking due process. Police said he was arrested after thorough surveillance.



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