Zabadani, Former Syria Resort, Now Rebel Stronghold
By Erika Solomon
BEIRUT, Jan 16 (Reuters) - Masked gunmen prowl the rain-swept streets of a once-relaxed Syrian hill resort, which they have transformed into a hub of revolt against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.
Zabadani, hugging the foothills of the Syrian-Lebanese border, is in the hands of rebels who say they are fighting a government crackdown on a 10-month-old movement to terminate 42 years of Assad family rule.
Amateur video obtained by Reuters portrays the life of gunmen and residents in the town of 40,000 shortly before troops backed by tanks attacked on Friday, wounding around 40 people but failing, at least at first, to regain control.
"God willing we won't let them enter this town. God willing they won't enter as long as we are breathing," said one rebel, his face hidden by a black-knit mask and a semi-automatic rifle slung over his green camouflage jacket.
"Every day we have a funeral...Every day their tanks fire on us," he said, as fighters pointed their guns over brick roofs and scanned the concrete homes sprawling down frozen hillsides.
A nascent insurgency of armed rebels and army deserters, who call themselves the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is overshadowing what began as peaceful protests. They say they are only trying to defend civilians against attack.
Since the protests began in March, more than 5,000 people have been killed by security forces, according to the United Nations. Damascus blames unrest on foreign-backed "armed terrorists" that it says have killed 2,000 security personnel.
Residents say they face nightly attacks by the army. The footage shows flashes of light and the crackling sound of explosions as red tracer bullets streak across the night sky.
Last week's assault on Zabadani was the largest against opponents of Assad since Arab League monitors arrived in Syria to oversee a peace plan that critics say has failed.
The army paused operations on Sunday while monitors briefly visited the town. Activists said about 200 families had fled since then to escape resumed bombardments by the 50 tanks they estimate were involved in the offensive.
Zabadani used to be a summer getaway when Damascus residents would flee the capital's muggy heat for a weekend in the cooler air of the country town just 30 km (19 miles) away. Wealthy Gulf Arabs would come to relax in their holiday villas.
Now some homes have holes blasted in their walls with rooms reduced to rubble, their windows shattered and roofs sagging.
"We have five women in hospital, in intensive care because of rocket fire here," said one activist, pointing to a wrecked staircase in one house. "Where are the Arab League monitors?"
GUNMEN WITH WALKIE TALKIES
The masked fighters in Zabadani, who repelled the initial army attack with the help of snowy weather, are seen in the footage patrolling empty streets, their breath clouding from the cold as they chat with drivers of the few cars that passed.
Other FSA gunmen zip through the town blaring protest songs over their car speakers and communicating by radio.
"I saw a bus down the street with about 34 people in it, we don't know it, maybe you should check it," one gunman shouts into his walkie-talkie.
Another gunman stops his car to paint over pro-government slogans written in black graffiti on a concrete wall. He shakes his can of white paint and changes a slogan supporting the president to instead read "Bashar is a donkey".
The footage shows residents flaunting their rebellion, painting their walls with the green, white and black Syrian independence flag and unfurling banners over their homes with a plain message for Assad: "Leave".
Some had evidently anticipated an army attack.
One young activist stood on her balcony and pointed at snowcapped foothills that lead to Damascus.
"They need 30 minutes to get here and if the guys see them coming they set off fireworks, we'll hear about it immediately," she said. "Then we get ready." (Editing by Alistair Lyon)