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Syrian rebels fight for strategic town in Hama province

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rebels began to push into a strategic town in Syria's central Hama province on Thursday and laid siege to at least one town dominated by President Bashar al-Assad's minority sect, activists said.

The operation risks inflaming already raw sectarian tensions as the 21-month-old revolt against four decades of Assad family rule - during which the president's Alawite sect has dominated leadership of the Sunni Muslim majority - rumbles on.

Opposition sources said rebels had won some territory in the strategic southern town of Morek and were surrounding the Alawite town of al-Tleisia.

They were also planning to take the town of Maan, arguing that the army was present there and in al-Tleisia and was hindering their advance on nearby Morek, a town on the highway that runs from Damascus north to Aleppo, Syria's largest city and another battleground in the conflict.

"The rockets are being fired from there, they are being fired from Maan and al-Tleisia, we have taken two checkpoints in the southern town of Morek. If we want to control it then we need to take Maan," said a rebel captain in Hama rural area, who asked not to be named.

Activists said heavy army shelling had targeted the town of Halfaya, captured by rebels two days earlier. Seven people were killed, 30 were wounded, and dozens of homes were destroyed, said activist Safi al-Hamawi.

Hama is home to dozens of Alawite and Christian villages among Sunni towns, and activists said it may be necessary to lay siege to many minority areas to seize Morek. Rebels want to capture Morek to cut off army supply lines into northern Idlib, a province on the northern border with Turkey where rebels hold swathes of territory.

From an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, Alawites have largely stood behind Assad, many out of fear of revenge attacks. Christians and some other minorities have claimed neutrality, with a few joining the rebels and a more sizeable portion of them supporting the government out of fear of hardline Islamism that has taken root in some rebel groups.

Activists in Hama said rebels were also surrounding the Christian town of al-Suqeilabiya and might enter the city to take out army positions as well as those of "shabbiha" - pro-Assad militias, the bulk of whom are usually Alawite but can also include Christians and even Sunnis.

"We have been in touch with Christian opposition activists in al-Suqeilabiya and we have told them to stay downstairs or on the lowest floor of their building as possible, and not to go outside. The rebels have promised not to hurt anyone who stays at home," said activist Mousab al-Hamdee, speaking by Skype.

He said he was optimistic that potential sectarian tensions with Christians could be resolved but that Sunni-Alawite strife may be harder to suppress.

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