KERNAZ, Syria: Rebels close to Syria’s central city of Hama are being pounded with bombs and shells as the regime wages a fierce assault to reverse losses in rural areas home to many of its Alawite supporters.
The thunder of numerous explosions in a cluster of villages some 25 kilometers northwest of Hama triggered an exodus of hundreds of local residents aboard cars, motorbikes and tractors Sunday, AFP reporters saw.
“We had to flee because of the shelling,” a 60-year-old woman, Fatma al-Omar, said as she sheltered in a roadside olive grove several kilometers away with around two dozen women and children.
“It’s very bad. Our children have no idea why they had to suddenly leave their homes.”
As rain came, the group clambered back into their two tractor-hitched trailers normally used to haul livestock to continue their slow journey away from their homes.
They were part of a flow of Sunni refugees fleeing north, into territory controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army. Their Alawite neighbors, fearing Sunni insurgents, escaped to regime-controlled areas elsewhere: to Hama, or west to the coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartous.
Menacing low-altitude rumbles from the regime’s jet fighters were heard, but low cloud hid them from view. The Russian-made aircraft dropped at least three bombs.
Black smoke from one of the blasts rose above a village surrounded by recently planted green fields.
An ad-hoc field hospital manned by seven men, including a doctor and a former pharmacy owner, was set up at one field, ready to give first aid.
“We’ve treated around 30 to 35 people in the past two days, all of them civilians hurt in their homes by the regime’s bombs,” the doctor, Wael Mahmoud, said.
Those grievously injured were sent to hospitals in northern Syria or in Turkey, the doctor said, showing his truckload of basic medical supplies by way of explanation.
In Kernaz, more than a dozen rebel fighters took up defensive positions with light weapons against Syrian army tanks located around 4 kilometers away which were firing shells around them.
Close hits forced the fighters to take shelter in basements in the village.
“Almost everyone has left here and the 12 villages around here,” Sheikh Abu Abar said, surrounded by fighters.
The few vehicles driving against the outflow of civilians were FSA pick-up trucks with heavy machine guns mounted, headed toward the front line.
“This area is a red line for the regime. There are many Alawites in this area so the regime is fighting very hard to take it back,” said the regional rebel commander, a former army special forces colonel who defected early in the war and who goes by the name Abu Hamza.
His forces had taken Kernaz and the area around it one month ago. Now, he admitted, they were likely soon to be rolled back by the regime offensive.
“The regime is concentrating its forces in Hama. Our men are good fighters but our only problem is the lack of ammunition,” he said. “We don’t have enough weapons to defend our positions.”
Hama is seen as one of Syria’s strategic cities in the war.
Located about halfway along a highway linking the capital Damascus in the south to Aleppo in the north, it is home to a mixed population of Alawites, the Shiite offshoot to which President Bashar Assad’s family belongs, as well as Sunnis and Christians.
The regime is determined to keep control of it and surrounding areas to hold at bay the rebels, who mainly roam the countryside but lack the means to dislodge Assad’s army from cities.
Abu Hamza also blamed the West for not following through with rhetoric supporting Syria’s armed opposition. He stressed that had provided an opportunity for the Nusra Front, an Islamist fighting force that has proved very effective.
The Nusra Front is deemed a “terrorist” organization by the United States for its links to the Al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq.
Hamza was circumspect about the group, saying only that “they came to help the Syrian people, unlike the international community” and were welcomed for that.
The Syrian people, he added, would decide what sort of country they wanted whenever Assad’s regime fell.