Syria's government said on Wednesday it has “cleansed terrorists” from Al-Haffe, a Sunni enclave feared to be the site of a new massacre, as Russia accused the United States of arming rebels.
The rebel Free Syrian Army said its fighters pulled out of Al-Haffe in a tactical move to spare civilians of the beleaguered northwestern town after an eight-day regime bombardment.
As the conflict spiralled to vicious new heights, Turkey reported that 2,500 Syrians had fled across its border in 48 hours, saying numbers had increased amid attacks even targeting U.N. observers.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington of giving arms to the rebels after his U.S. counterpart Hillary Clinton charged that Moscow was supplying President Bashar al-Assad's regime with attack helicopters.
On the ground, at least 15 people were killed as troops and rebels clashed across the country, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
State media said government forces overran Al-Haffe, a day after U.N. observers came under fire trying to reach the town after the U.N. and opposition activists expressed fears of a massacre.
“Security and calm were restored in the area of Al-Haffe which was cleansed after armed terrorist groups assaulted citizens and vandalised and burned a number of public and private properties,” SANA said.
“The authorities pursued the remaining terrorists in the villages surrounding Al-Haffe” where they “killed and arrested a number of them,” the news agency said, adding that regime forces also suffered casualties.
The rebels said they “withdrew from Al-Haffe and the entire region at dawn in order to spare the lives of residents undergoing extremely violent shelling”.
“The town and villages of Al-Haffe were subjected to aerial, tank and rocket bombardment, as well as a suffocating siege by regime forces and thugs,” they said, adding the retreat was “to avoid falling into the regime's civil war trap”. Expressing surprise at an assessment by the U.N. peacekeeping chief that a sharp escalation in violence had changed the nature of the 15-month conflict, Syria said U.N. officials should remain “neutral, objective and precise”.
“Talk of civil war in Syria is not consistent with reality ... What is happening in Syria is a war against armed terrorist groups,” said the Foreign Ministry.