A leading UN official said yesterday that the conflict in Syria now constitutes a full-blown civil war as the regime desperately tried to wrest back control of rebel-held areas, including a coastal town in the north-west where there are fears that another massacre may be unfolding.
As pro-government villagers armed with metal rods and rocks prevented international observers from reaching the Sunni town of al-Haffa, in the regime's Alawite heartland on the Mediterranean coast, the UN UnderSecretary for Peacekeeping Operations, Herve Ladsous, said that the conflict, in which around 13,000 people are estimated to have been killed, can now be defined as a civil war.
"Clearly what is happening is that the government of Syria lost some large chunks of territory in several cities to the opposition and wants to retake control of these areas," he said.
As a Free Syrian Army stronghold with a population of around 30,000 nestled in the foothills just 15km from the Assad dynasty's home town of Qardahah, al-Haffa is strategically important and has been the scene of heavy fighting for the past week.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, joined Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy, in urging the government to allow monitors into the besieged town. However, the monitoring mission said its efforts were thwarted once again, with its cars later coming under fire.
"Observers trying to reach the town of al-Haffa were confronted with angry crowds that surrounded their vehicles," said Sausan Ghosheh, a spokeswoman for the UN monitoring mission. "The crowd, who appeared to be residents of the area, then hurled stones and metal rods. As [observers] were leaving the area, three vehicles heading towards Idlib were fired upon." Ms Ghosheh said the source of the gunfire was unclear. Syrian state television claimed that the observers' cars had run over and injured three residents in Latakia province outside al-Haffa, as they tried to explain the suffering caused by "terrorist groups". The UN declined to comment.
With mobile phone networks in al- Haffa blocked and limited information seeping out, it is difficult to ascertain how many have died. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says at least 52 people, including 29 civilians, have been killed in the past week.
Rebels have said they are attempting to create safe passages to smuggle the wounded out of the town, where US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the army "may be organising another massacre" after mass killings in villages such as Houla, in Homs province.
The Syrian government reacted with anger to the US claims, accusing it of "blatant interference" in its internal affairs.