AMMAN: Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite paramilitaries backed by Syrian army firepower overran a southern suburb of Damascus Wednesday, opposition activists said, in a blow to rebels trying to hold onto strategic outskirts of the capital.
In the north, fierce fighting continued to rage in the province of Idlib, where the rebels are waging a campaign dubbed “the Earthquake” to dislodge regime forces from two besieged military bases. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime aircraft carried out raids on rebel positions in a bid to thwart the attack.
South of Aleppo, government troops continued their push against rebels after seizing the town of Khanaser, as anti-government fighters, including the Islamist Nusra Front and Islamic State of Greater Syria, seek to keep the nearby town of Safira in rebel hands, opposition sources said.
In Aleppo, the Observatory reported fighting in the Salaheddine neighborhood, where rebels were advancing.
Clashes killed 10 troops, and deaths were reported among the rebels as well, the group said.
In the center of Syria, rebel shelling of one of the country’s two main oil refineries set fire to the plant, already working at barely 10 percent capacity.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in the bombardment of the plant in Homs, the Observatory said. Syria’s oil industry has been massively hit since an uprising against the rule of President Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011.
Crude output now stands at barely 10 percent of its pre-uprising levels as a result of European Union sanctions that closed off Syria’s main export markets and the rebels’ capture of key oil fields that has hit even production for domestic use.
South of Damascus, at least 20 rebels were killed when Hezbollah guerrillas and Iraqi militiamen captured the town of Sheikh Omar under cover of Syrian army artillery and tank fire and aerial bombardment, opposition activists said, with dozens of Shiite fighters killed or wounded.
Sheikh Omar sits between two highways leading south of the capital that are crucial to supplying Assad’s forces in the provinces of Deraa and Swaida on the border with Jordan.
Syria’s two-and-a-half-year war has killed more than 120,000 people and forced millions from their homes into sprawling refugee camps in neighboring countries.
Regional security officials say up to 60,000 fighters from Iraq, Iran and Yemen and Hezbollah are present in Syria supporting Assad.
The country has also seen the influx of 30,000 Sunni fighters to support the rebels, including foreign jihadists and Syrian expatriates.
Hezbollah has acknowledged fighting openly in support of Assad, its main patron together with Shiite Iran, but the group does not comment on the specifics of its operations in the country.
The deployment of the Iraqi and Lebanese militia has been vital in preventing all southern approaches to Damascus from falling into rebel hands, according to opposition sources and the regional security officials.
The foreign Shiite fighters together with soldiers and local paramilitaries loyal to Assad have been laying siege to rebel-held southern suburbs of the capital near the Shiite shrine of Sayyeda Zainab for the past six months, residents say.
The siege has squeezed rebels in areas further to the center of the city and caused shortages of food and medicine that have hit the civilian population.
Wardan Abu Hassan, a doctor at a makeshift hospital in southern Damascus, said the facility and another nearby received 70 wounded people, both fighters and civilians, since 4 a.m.
The wounded came from Sheikh Omar and the nearby suburbs of Dhiabiyeh and Buwayda, where the rebels were trying to hold off the militia advance, he said.
“Most of the casualties are from airstrikes, and fire from tanks and multiple rocket launchers,” the physician told Reuters.
An opposition group, the Damascus Revolution Leadership Council, said a baby girl died in the southern district of Hajar al-Aswad from malnutrition caused by the siege. The report could not be independently confirmed.
Rami Sayyed from the opposition Syrian Media Center monitoring group said rebel fighters were trying to hold off the Hezbollah and Iraqi fighters in Dhiabiyeh and Buwayda.
“It is tough because the regime is providing Hezbollah and the Iraqis with heavy artillery and rocket cover from high ground,” he said.
Sayyed said much of the fire was coming from the 56th army brigade in the hilly region of Sahya. That area was evacuated after the threat of U.S. strikes following a nerve gas attack in August on other rebellious Damascus suburbs that killed hundreds.
The area became operational again after the threat receded following a deal to destroy Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, Sayyed said.
Syrian rebels seized a guard post on the Jordanian border after a month of fierce fighting, the Observatory said.
“Rebel fighters took control of the Hajjana border post near the city of Deraa after laying siege to it for two months and fierce clashes around it lasting a month,” the NGO said.
Some of the border guard battalion had withdrawn, but it was not yet clear how many people had been killed or wounded in its capture.
The border checkpoint is adjacent to an old customs post seized by rebels days earlier.
With its capture, opposition rebel forces now control a ribbon of territory along the border from outside Deraa to the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
In Damascus province, regime warplanes bombed the town of Irbin, northeast of the capital, and the town of Yabroud, north of Damascus, the Observatory said.
On the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights facing Syria, two Israeli soldiers were lightly injured by cross-border fire, Israeli security sources said.
They said Israel returned fire but did give no further details, and the army spokesman’s office had no immediate comment.
Israeli news website Ynet said only one soldier was physically hurt, by shrapnel from mortar fire, while the other soldier was suffering from shock.
The security sources said it was not immediately clear whether the men came under mortar or small-arms fire.
On Sept. 12, three apparently stray mortar shells landed in the Israeli-held sector without causing casualties. Israel returned fire after shells landed in territory under its control in August.