UNITED NATIONS/BEIRUT: Fierce clashes between regime troops and rebels raged in neighborhoods in and around the capital Thursday, activists and state media said, amid reports that clashes in a coastal province killed a top foreign fighter who was a former Guantanamo Bay detainee.
The coastal offensive by rebels has also prompted the Syrian authorities to delay the scheduled shipment of chemical materials, a U.N. spokesman said.
Activists reported heavy clashes and government air raids in the Damascus suburb of Mliha, as well as the capital’s eastern Jobar neighborhood.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 rebels were killed in the Mliha clashes and three in Jobar, with the regime reportedly sending reinforcements to push ahead with its offensive against the rebel-held areas.
It said regime forces targeted Mliha with a surface-to-surface rocket.
Syria’s state news agency said four mortar bombs slammed into Harasta, northwest of Damascus, killing six children and wounding five more. Another five people were wounded when a mortar bomb struck the upscale central neighborhood of Maliki, the agency said.
The Observatory said mortar bombs also struck Ummayad Square, close to the state TV and radio stations, as well as the army command. It said there were no casualties.
In the coastal campaign, Syrian troops killed a Moroccan militant once detained at the U.S. military’s Guantanamo Bay prison, private Lebanese television station Al-Mayadeen and Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar said. The stations described him as the chief of the hard-line Sham al-Islam Movement.
The stations said Brahim Benchakroun, better-known in Syria as Abu Ahmad al-Maghribi, was killed Wednesday while fighting government forces in northern rural Latakia, where rebels launched an offensive late last month, capturing several villages while also gaining their first access to the sea.
The Observatory said Benchakroun was critically wounded Wednesday but could not confirm whether he had been killed. A Latakia-based activist, Mohammad Abul-Hassan, said Bencharkoun was defending the strategic hill known as Observatory 45 that fell to the rebels last week.
American authorities handed Benchakroun over to Morocco in 2005. He was captured in Afghanistan, where he had moved in 1999, according to Islamist websites.
Abul-Hassan said Benchakroun used to be a member of the Nusra Front, an Al-Qaeda-linked group. Benchakroun then set up his own Sham al-Islam group after Nusra split with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
The Sham al-Islam Movement took part in a rebel offensive in August that captured several Latakia villages before eventually being dislodged by government troops. Latakia is a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, and the ancestral home the leader’s Alawite sect.
Thursday’s clashes around Observatory 45 killed or wounded 20 regime troops and paramilitaries, and a total of 11 rebel and jihadist fighters.
Despite the destruction and relentless violence of a conflict that has killed more than 150,000 people, Assad is quietly preparing the ground to hold presidential elections early this summer to win another seven-year term.
No date has been set yet for the vote, which must be held between 60 and 90 days before Assad’s current seven-year term ends on July 17. Last month, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door – at least in theory – to potential contenders besides Assad.
On Thursday, 11 nations that support the main Syrian opposition group in exile sharply criticized the notion of holding elections amid a raging civil war.
The group, which includes the U.S. as well as its Europe and Gulf allies, accused Assad of viewing such elections as a means “to sustain his dictatorship,” and said the recent moves by the Syrian government to lay the foundations for the polls to “have no credibility.”
In New York, diplomats heard that Syria has packed 40 percent of its chemical weapons arsenal into containers to be taken outside the country and destroyed, while convoy security has been deployed to deal with violence around Latakia. “Syrian authorities informed the joint mission that in view of the deteriorating security situation in Latakia province it would be temporarily postponing scheduled movements of chemical materials,” U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters.
Syria’s U.N. envoy warned that the government may be forced to delay its transports due to the security situation and might miss another deadline for moving the ingredients of its gas program out of the country.