Activists: Syrian rebels seize coastal area

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels seized control of a seaside tourist site by the Turkish border on Tuesday that allowed them a small foothold by the Mediterranean for the first time since the uprising erupted against President Bashar Assad, activists say.

The reported capture of the rocky, coastal strip known as Samra came after rebels severed one of the Assad government's last links to the Turkish border by seizing the Kassab crossing and a predominantly Armenian Christian town of the same name on Sunday. The gains provide a boost for opposition fighters who were pushed out of key parts of the Syrian border with Lebanon over the past few weeks.

This is the first time rebels have had any sea access since the uprising began in March 2011, said an activist who uses the name Abu Salah al-Haffawi and Rami Abdurrahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Samra, little more than a rocky beach nestled at the foot of forested mountains, straddles the Syria-Turkey border. The Turkish government has allowed Syrian rebels, as well as weapons, to move with relative freedom across the frontier with Syria. Still, Samra has no port, and Syrian military aircraft would likely bomb rebels trying to use any sea passage.

There was no government confirmation of Samra's capture.

A video uploaded to social networks showed a group of rebels by the sea, some sitting on rocks and raising their guns. Some of the men hold up a black banner with the name of the Ansar al-Sham rebel group written on it in white Arabic script.

"This is the village of Samra, under the rule of rebels," the narrator says. "This is the first sea access on the Mediterranean."

The video appeared genuine and corresponded with The Associated Press reporting.

Rebels launched their offensive on Friday in Latakia province, the ancestral home of the Assad family and a stronghold of his minority Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot that is one of the main pillars of support for his rule.

Fighting was also raging across the rugged terrain around Kassab and the Turkish border on Tuesday.

The Observatory, which has a network of activists on the ground, said rebels also seized a strategic hill in the area known as Observatory 45.

It said at least 14 government troops, including two officers, were killed and another 40 soldiers were wounded in Tuesday's fighting. On the rebel side, it said at least six fighters were killed, and around 100 wounded, many of whom were taken across the border to Turkey for treatment.

Syrian government artillery and warplanes were pounding the hilltop location, which provides a view of all the surrounding countryside, to try to dislodge the rebels, the Observatory activist group said.

Syrian military aircraft also flew sorties over Kassab, according to private Turkish news agency Dogan. It said smoke from the bombing runs was visible from the Turkish border crossing of Yayladagi.

Meanwhile, pro-Assad forces took control over the nearby Niser hills, the Syrian-state run news agency SANA said. Rebels had previously occupied the area, activists say.

Rebels in Latakia are mostly from hard-line Sunni groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, and many see the Alawites as heretics.

In another video uploaded from social networking sites, a rebel leader identified as Abdullah al-Muheisini warned Alawites that his fighters would capture Alawite "land, homes and possessions, with the will of God." The video was consistent with AP reporting from the area.

But in an effort to show the rebels had no intention of hurting Christians, al-Haffawi, the activist, posted a video from inside a church in Kassab to show that it was left untouched.

Last August, rebel brigades captured around a dozen villages in the Latakia mountains, before a government counteroffensive expelled them.

Afterward, Human Rights Watch said nearly 200 civilians, including children, the elderly and the handicapped, were killed. It said rebel abuses during the operation amounted to war crimes.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 140,000 people, displaced at least a quarter of its pre-war population of 23 million and triggered a humanitarian crisis across the region.

___

Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas in Beirut, and Suzan Fraser Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.

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