Middle East

Syria army steps up operations near Damascus: activists

Syrian emergency personnel evacuate civilians following a reported airstrike by government forces on April 4, 2014 on the Shaar neighbourhood of the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. AFP PHOTO / ZEIN AL-RIFAI / AMC

BEIRUT: Regime tanks and warplanes pounded besieged Mleiha east of Damascus on Friday, pressing a campaign to take control of the opposition-held town, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Fierce fighting raged on the outskirts of Mleiha as rebels tried to defend it, the Observatory said a day after 22 opposition fighters were killed in the army's bombardment.

According to the Britain-based monitoring group, there were four air strikes on Friday on Mleiha, which like much of the Eastern Ghouta area east of Damascus has been under army siege for nearly six months.

Mleiha is strategically located near regime-held Jaramana, which is frequently shelled by the rebels.

State news agency SANA said Thursday that six children were killed in shelling on the Dikhaniyeh neighbourhood there.

An activist on the ground, Abu Saqr, told AFP via Skype that "Assad's regime has been trying for two days to storm" Mleiha.

He claimed that the offensive "is being repelled by the (rebel) Free Syrian Army".

Abu Saqr said fighting on the edges of Mleiha was "very fierce" and that the rebels are up against government troops backed by Syrian and Iraqi pro-regime militiamen.

The army's campaign to crush rebel bastions in the Eastern Ghouta area began in March 2013, and its troops blockaded the area completely in October.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are still living in Eastern Ghouta, suffering from severe food shortages in many towns and villages, as well as bearing the brunt of daily shelling.

Elsewhere, fighting resumed in Latakia in western Syria, where rebels launched a major offensive two weeks ago against several strategic positions in the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad's clan and his Alawite sect.

Friday's battles focused on a key hill known as Observatory 45, whose summit saw fierce fighting, according to the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a network of activists on the ground.

More than 300 fighters on both sides have been killed in Latakia in the past two weeks, the Observatory says.

Among them was Moroccan jihadist Ibrahim Benchekroun, a former Guantanamo inmate.

Better known as Abu Ahmad al-Maghrebi, he had previously fought US troops in Afghanistan after Al-Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and was later detained in Pakistan.

In northwestern Syria, rebels took control of Babuleen and Salhiyeh in Idlib province, a year after regime forces had taken them over, said the Observatory.

At least 18 troops were killed in the fighting.

The rebel advance helps tighten their siege on Wadi Deif army base, one of the regime's last significant positions in Idlib.

In Aleppo in the north, at least two people were killed in an air strike on the rebel-held Shaar district.

Hundreds of people, mostly civilians, have been killed in air strikes on rebel areas in Aleppo since the regime launched a major aerial offensive on the city in December.





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