BEIRUT/NEW YORK: The head of the rebel Free Syrian Army has visited the coastal province of Latakia, according to video footage, a show of force in the home province of President Bashar Assad’s family.
Several villages in Latakia, which is a stronghold of Assad’s Alawite sect, have been overrun by Sunni Muslim insurgents over the past few days.
In the video posted on the opposition Syrian National Coalition’s Facebook page, rebel military chief Gen. Salim Idriss walks with a small group of fighters through hilly terrain.
Dressed in civilian clothes with a shoulder holster and a pistol, Idriss tells them that he visited the front to see the “important achievements and great victories that were made by our brother rebels in the coast.”
“We are here to confirm that the command is fully coordinating with the coastal command,” he said.
Coalition spokeswoman Sarah Karkour confirmed the visit to Latakia took place Sunday. She did not specify whether Idriss went to the newly captured territory.
Idriss’ forces are backed by the West, but the Latakia offensive is being led by two Al-Qaeda-linked groups who have killed hundreds of people this month and driven hundreds more to seek refuge on the Mediterranean coast.
Underfunded and fragmented, Idriss’ men have been overshadowed by these hard-line groups and some more moderate rebel leaders have been killed in power struggles with Al-Qaeda affiliates that include foreign fighters.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has received reports over the past two days that “indicate more than 3,000 families have been displaced from around 30 villages around Latakia,” U.N. spokesman Eduardo del Buey said Monday.
“The Syrian government has opened three shelters but reports indicate that 80 percent of the displaced people are staying with relatives and host communities inside Latakia,” he said.
One extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, issued a statement Sunday saying its militants were now “a stone’s throw from Qardaha,” the Assad family’s hometown. It said the militants had fired rockets into the town.
The rebel advance into Alawite territory is a major gain for Assad’s foes after months of setbacks during which they lost ground around the capital Damascus and the central city of Homs.
In the northern city of Raqqa meanwhile, protesters have held daily demonstrations against jihadists, demanding the release of “hundreds” of missing people including an Italian Jesuit priest, a watchdog said Monday.News of the protests comes two weeks after Father Paolo Dall’Oglio went missing when he went to meet commanders of the jihadist group in late July to ask for the release of kidnapped activists.
“Demonstrations have been held daily for two weeks demanding the release of hundreds of civilians” kidnapped by the group, including Dall’Oglio, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition activist group.
The Britain-based watchdog described Dall’Oglio as a “messenger of peace” and “a friend of the Syrian opposition” to Assad’s regime.
Raqqa is the only provincial capital to have fallen out of regime hands since the start of Syria’s protest movement in March 2011.
The Observatory Monday also reported clashes in Raqqa five days ago that pitted the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria against a local rebel group.
The fighting broke out after jihadists “attacked the headquarters of the Ahfad al-Rasul brigade in the Mahatta neighborhood of Raqqa,” said the monitoring group.
In protests the day after, residents called on jihadists “to leave” their area, the Observatory added.
In the east of the country, Nearly 60 Syrian soldiers and jihadists have been killed in three days of fighting in Deir al-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria where rebels have made advances, the Observatory said.
At least 33 jihadist fighters have been killed since Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory.
The group, which relies on a network of activists, doctors and lawyers on the ground, said 25 regime forces were also killed in the clashes.
“The clashes are very intense, the fighters are using several tanks they have, while the army is shelling pockets” of jihadists, Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
The jihadist fighters are concentrating their efforts on the district of Huweika, home to several government buildings and security headquarters.
Syria’s state news agency SANA said Monday the army had “killed terrorists in the Senaa neighborhood and other terrorists were killed when a car they rigged with explosives detonated.”
Meanwhile, United Nations diplomats said U.N. chemical weapons experts have delayed their departure to Syria because of differences with Damascus over how they will investigate alleged attacks.
The experts, led by Ake Sellstrom of Sweden, were supposed to have left over the weekend and to have begun work this week.
But “there has been a delay,” said a diplomat, adding that the experts “wanted assurances on the modalities [of the investigation] and they haven’t received them.”
Questioned about the report, del Buey declined to comment on the reasons for the delay. But he confirmed that the experts “are not there yet.”
“We are still working on the logistical challenges,” he said. “As we said last week they are gathered in The Hague and the logistics are being worked out with the Syrian authorities.”
The U.N. last month reached a framework agreement with the Syrian government on the mission but has been awaiting a final green light from Damascus.
One of the sites to be investigated is Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo, where the government says rebels used chemical weapons on March 19, killing at least 26 people, including 16 Syrian soldiers.
The opposition says government forces carried out the attack.