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Syrian troops forced out of mountain town, opposition says

From Samira Said, CNN
updated 6:58 AM EST, Thu January 19, 2012
Supporters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) gather in the flashpoint city of Homs on January 13, 2012.
Supporters of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) gather in the flashpoint city of Homs on January 13, 2012.
  • NEW: Opposition official says another confrontation is expected in Zabadani
  • The opposition says Syrian troops were driven from Zabadani
  • Residents aided defecting soldiers in the fight, an activist says
  • Arab League monitors visited Zabadani on Sunday

(CNN) -- Syrian activists say opposition forces have wrested control of the town of Zabadani from government troops, but the authorities' tanks remain perched on its outskirts.

"There was massive protests in Zabadani, so the Syrian Army tried to disperse them. But our troops were very organized and aggressive with a counter attack that left them fleeing and they withdrew completely out of the city," said Lt. Col. Mohamed Hamdo of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group made up of former government soldiers. "Our forces raised the flag of independence in Zabadani."

Hamdo said, though, that the opposition fighters "expect another confrontation" as the government forces regroup outside the town.

The FSA destroyed at least three armored vehicles during the fighting, a Zabadani-based member of the Local Coordination Committees of Syria, an opposition umbrella group, told CNN. Cold weather and snow hindered troop movements into the town, located at the head of a mountain valley, said the activist, who identified himself only as Faris.

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Faris said Zabadani residents aided the rebel force by providing them with clothing and shelter. No civilians were killed there on Wednesday, he added.

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Another activist in Zabadani told CNN that Syrian government forces had ringed the town and were shelling it from outside.

And a third activist, based in the northern city of Homs, told CNN that about 6,000 people in Zabadani turned out for a demonstration to celebrate Wednesday evening. Video posted on YouTube showed marchers clapping and chanting, waving their fingers in the air in victory signs and voicing thanks to the Free Syrian Army.

Syrian authorities have restricted the activity of journalists during the 10-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, so CNN cannot independently verify events there. But a CNN crew accompanied an Arab League monitoring team during a visit to Zabadani on Sunday, when crowds carried the monitors on their shoulders and urged them to stay to prevent reprisals.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency made no mention Wednesday of events in Zabadani.

Elsewhere, the Local Coordination Committees of Syria said 21 more people were killed by government troops on Wednesday. Of those, 13 were killed in Homs, the scene of the worst violence in recent weeks, with the rest scattered around the country, the LCC said.

Four people were killed in Idlib, two in the Damascus suburbs, one in Aleppo and one in Daraa, according to the LCC.

The Syrian Arab News Agency, meanwhile, said 15 police officers and soldiers, including an army colonel, had been killed in recent fighting.

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The Arab League monitoring mission was scheduled to end Wednesday. But Adnan Al Khudeir, the Cairo-based head of the operation, said the league and the Syrian government were in talks over an extension, and a source close to the mission in Damascus told CNN that all the monitors had been told to remain at their bases on Thursday.

Zabadani is about 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Damascus, near the border with Lebanon.

Mohamed Fahmy contributed to this report.

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