BEIRUT -- Rebels have threatened to storm two predominantly Christian towns in central Syria if residents do not "evict" government troops they say are using the towns as a base to attack nearby areas.
A video released by rebels showed Rashid Abul-Fidaa, who identified himself as the commander of the Ansar Brigade for Hama province, calling on locals in Mahrada and Sqailbiyeh to rise up against President Bashar Assad's forces or prepare for an assault.
"Assad's gangs in the cities are shelling our villages with mortars and rockets destroying our homes, killing our children and displacing our people," said Abdul-Fidaa, who wore an Islamic headband and was surrounded by gunmen.
"You should perform your duty by evicting Assad's gangs," he said. "Otherwise our warriors will storm the hideouts of the Assad gangs."
Abdul-Fidaa accused regime forces of taking positions in the two towns in order to "incite sectarian strife" between Christians and the predominantly Sunni opposition. Assad belongs to the Alawite minority sect, an off-shoot of Shia Islam.
The threat comes two days after a UN team investigating human rights abuses in Syria accused anti-Assad militants of hiding among civilians, triggering strikes by government artillery and the air force.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the activist group that reported the rebel ultimatum yesterday, said such an attack by rebels could force thousands of Christians from their homes.
Russia's foreign minister, meanwhile, said that Moscow would welcome any country's offer of a safe haven to Assad, but underlined that Moscow itself has no intention of giving him shelter if he steps down.
Sergei Lavrov said Syria has consolidated its chemical weapons into one or two locations to protect them from a rebel onslaught. Russia, which has military advisers training Syria's armed forces, has kept close watch over Damascus' chemical arsenal, Lavrov added.
Syria refuses to confirm or deny if it has chemical weapons but is believed to have nerve agents as well as mustard gas. It also possesses Scud missiles capable of delivering them.