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Syria cuts deal with Sunni town

| Saturday, Oct. 5, 2013, 6:48 p.m.

BEIRUT — Syrian government forces reached an agreement Saturday with local officials of a vulnerable Sunni village in a region dominated by President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect to end hours of deadly shelling in exchange for the surrender of dozens of opposition fighters, an activist group said.

The shelling of al-Mitras began at dawn, killing eight civilians while fierce fighting between rebels and government forces on the outskirts of the village left 20 soldiers dead or wounded, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The violence ended when local officials and dignitaries from the village persuaded dozens of defectors and rebels to surrender to authorities with the promise that they would be freed after repenting.

Such deals have been used in the past to end bouts of heavy fighting as the two sides find themselves stalemated. One ended days of heavy fighting in the central town of Talkalakh, near the border with Lebanon, earlier this year.

Rights groups and activists had expressed concern that al-Mitras would suffer the fate of the nearby Sunni towns of Bayda and Banias, where activists allege government troops killed 248 people in days of shelling.

The rebels are outgunned by regime forces, which have gained momentum since Assad agreed to relinquish his chemical weapons stocks, averting the threat of imminent U.S. military action. But they often are able to engage in deadly battles.

The war has cleaved along a sectarian patchwork. Majority Sunni Muslims dominate the revolt, which began in March 2011, while Christians and other Muslim sects have mostly stood behind the regime.

But the opposition has growing divisions and internal fighting as the Western-backed rebels blame al-Qaida-linked extremists for tarnishing their image and preventing the United States and its allies from providing crucial support.

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