BEIRUT: Syrian government troops Tuesday pounded the rebel stronghold of Yabroud near the Lebanese border with airstrikes and artillery, targeting the town where they believe opposition fighters are holding a group of nuns.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said President Bashar Assad’s forces struck the town, one of the remaining rebel strongholds in the Qalamoun region, as part of an offensive the army launched last month to cut off rebel’s supply routes from Lebanon. The fighting has forced thousands to flee across the border.
Yabroud has been under rebel control since early last year and has served as a major smuggling hub for opposition fighters.
Activists, church and regime officials believe rebel fighters took 12 nuns to Yabroud after seizing them eight days ago from a nearby Greek Orthodox convent. Six of the nuns denied they had been abducted in a video broadcast on Al-Jazeera Friday, saying they were being held in a safe place.
After storming the Qalamoun town of Nabk Monday, regime troops backed by members of an Iraqi Shiite militia have killed several dozen members of four extended families on the Nabk-Homs highway, the Local Coordination Committees said. The LCCs, a network of anti-government activists, said 18 of the dead had been identified.
In the north, fighters belonging to rival Islamist rebel groups battled each other, killing at least 12 people, the Observatory said.
Members of the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and another Islamist group, the Ahrar al-Sham militia, clashed in the town of Maskaneh in northern Aleppo province. The fighting started in the morning after ISIS members detained a man to try him in an Islamic court they set up after driving Assad’s forces from the area, the Observatory said. It obtains its information from activists on the ground.
Over the past year, ISIS has become one of the most influential groups on the opposition’s side in the country’s nearly three-year-old conflict.
The Observatory also said the Islamic Front alliance of seven militias, which includes Ahrar al-Sham, secured control of the key Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey after seizing it from two mainstream FSA brigades.
The capture came after the Islamic Front seized arms depots near the crossing belonging to the FSA at the weekend, heightening tensions among the fractured Syrian opposition.
The Observatory also reported fierce fighting between regime troops and rebels in the western and eastern suburbs of Damascus, while a mortar bomb landed in the neighborhood of Mezzeh, wounding at least two people. Mortar fire was also reported in the upscale Malki district and the Christian neighborhood of Bab Touma.
In Qatar, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel briefed leaders about the effort to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, while underscoring U.S. support for moderate opposition groups.
Hagel met with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad and Defense Minister Hamad bin Ali al-Attiyah on the last day of a visit to the region to reassure Gulf Arab allies of continuing U.S. support, despite disagreements over Washington’s policy toward Syria and its diplomatic overtures to Iran.
Hagel told reporters at Al-Udeid Air Base that he spoke with Qatari leaders about international efforts to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and the reasons Washington was focused on narrowly supporting the moderate Syrian opposition.
While divided world powers continue to try to bring rebels and Syria’s government together for talks, Islamist militants appear to be gaining ever more momentum in relation to moderate forces backed by the West.
“The opposition in Syria ... is very fractured and it includes terrorist organizations,” Hagel told reporters. “There’s a sectarian war dynamic of this. There’s a civil war dynamic of this. Iran is supporting various groups in there.”
Hagel said the United States supported a resolution of the Syrian war that would replace Assad. He said differences over how to achieve that would not divide the United States and its partners in the region.
In Kuwait, the head of the opposition National Coalition urged wealthy Gulf Arab states to establish an aid fund for millions of Syrians stricken by civil war.
Well over 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict between Assad’s forces and rebels which Monday marked its 1,000th day. The U.N. says about 6.5 million people have fled their homes within Syria and 2.3 million sought refuge abroad.
Coalition President Ahmad Jarba, speaking at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, said that “the first step of aid is to support our people now with an aid fund ... and that will be under the supervision and management of the Syrian National Coalition.”
Donor countries meeting in Kuwait in January pledged more than $1.5 billion for Syrians affected by the war, with about $1 billion earmarked for other countries in the region hosting refugees and $500 million for humanitarian aid to Syrians displaced inside the country.
The oil-producing Gulf Arab states of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates each promised $300 million at the January meeting. Qatar later pledged $100 million in aid.