BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels and government forces clashed over another coastal town in Latakia province on Wednesday, as opposition fighters slowly pressed their advance in the heartland of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect after seizing a border crossing and their first coastal strip since the uprising began three years ago.
The fighting in the town of Qastal Maaf is part of an assault that began on Saturday in Latakia province by an array of rebels from conservative and Islamic groups, including the al-Qaida affiliated Nusra Front.
The province is the ancestral home of the Assad family and the Alawite sect, a Shiite offshoot that is one of the main pillars of support for his rule.
Rebels were hoping that the clashes would draw more Syrian soldiers to the area, relieving some pressure on the opposition fighters who have been badly weakened elsewhere in the country, said an activist in Latakia who identified himself as Mohammed Abu al-Hassan.
"The thinking is to open a battle that will make the regime rush to fight," Abu al-Hassan said. "The regime can't imagine losing the sea (of Latakia). They will bring reinforcements, and that will lessen the pressure (elsewhere)."
Another Latakia-based activist, Abu Salah al-Haffawi, and Rami Abdurrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also confirmed the battles underway Wednesday. The Observatory obtains its information from a network of Syria-based activists.
"So far, it's attacks and retreats, nothing is certain," said Abdurrahman. There was no government confirmation of the fighting.
Qastal Maaf was another small advance for the rebels.
It lies about 16 kilometers (10 miles) from the border crossing of Kassab, which the rebels already seized, severing one of the Assad government's last connections to its northern Turkish neighbor and a predominantly Armenian Christian town of the same name.
It is approximately the same distance from the rocky coastal patch of the village of Samra, which the rebels seized on Tuesday — their first small foothold by the Mediterranean since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011.
Late Tuesday, the rebels moved onto Qastal Maaf after seizing a hilltop area known as Observatory 45. Activists said the Observatory 45 was important because it overlooked the mountains of the Latakia where there are dozens of opposition-held villages.
Activist Abu al-Hassan said the Samra coastal strip could be used by rebels to smuggle weapons. He said the sandy shore, backed by rocky mountains was a smugglers point for decades, for its close access to Turkey and the nearby presence of deep water.
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.
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.
In a blow to the government forces, those killed in the battle for Kassab included Hilal Assad, a second cousin of the president who was also the commander of the pro-government National Defense Forces.