BEIRUT: Islamist rebels in Syria have retaken a town from President Bashar Assad’s forces, activists said Friday, in part of an offensive along a stretch of the main highway linking Damascus to the northern city of Aleppo.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels killed 18 soldiers and disabled two tanks in the fight for the northern town of Babolin.
The rebel assault coincided with a 2-week-old offensive further west in the coastal province of Latakia, a heartland of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, where fighters seeking to overthrow him have seized a border crossing and several villages.
Assad’s army, backed by local militia and Hezbollah fighters, has made steady gains around Damascus and in the Lebanese border areas, but his forces remain stretched and rebels have sought to seize the initiative elsewhere.
After capturing Babolin, rebels were battling pro-Assad fighters along a nearby 20-mile stretch of highway between the towns of Morek and Maaret al-Numan, the Observatory said.
The fall of Babolin puts pressure on two military bases on the edge of Maaret al-Numan held by Assad’s forces. Rebels had blockaded the bases for six months, trying to cut Assad’s main road link between Damascus and Aleppo, before they were pushed back in April 2013.
In Aleppo, at least 11 people were killed in an airstrike on the rebel-held Shaar district, while Friday’s battles in Latakia focused on a key hill known as Observatory 45, whose summit saw fierce fighting, according to the activist Syrian Revolution General Commission group.
Turkey responded to cross-border shelling Friday by firing artillery into Latakia without causing injuries or damage, the army said.
“Six shells hit in Yayladadi in Hatay province and caused no damage,” said the Turkish armed forces in a statement. “In accordance with the rules of engagement, Turkish artillery shelled the area where the fire originated.”
Fighting also raged in the east of Damascus as the regime tried force to rebels out of a number of strategic towns.
Assad’s forces have been seeking for months to solidify its hold on Damascus by dislodging rebels from the towns on the city’s fringes. The government has used twin tactics to achieve its aims: Blockading rebellious areas and unleashing airstrikes on districts that refuse to bend.
One town that has held out is Mliha, located just east of the capital in eastern Ghouta. Early Friday, a series of government air raids targeted the town, killing at least seven people, said Ammar al-Hassan, an activist based near Mliha.
“There are very fierce clashes today and the bombardment is very intense,” Hassan said by Skype.
He said the government is focusing on Mliha because of its location along the main road that links Damascus with Eastern Ghouta.
Another activist on the ground, Abu Saqr, said via Skype that “Assad’s regime has been trying for two days to storm” Mliha. He claimed that the offensive “is being repelled by the Free Syrian Army.”
The Observatory also reported clashes in the nearby town of Jobar.
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.
Part of the government’s desire to flush rebels from outlying areas of the capital is to prevent the opposition fighters from lobbing mortar rounds into neighborhoods of the capital.
The state news agency SANA said five mortar shells slammed into Damascus’ predominantly Christian Bab Touma neighborhood Friday, wounding 22 people.
In an audio message released Friday, Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri told rival jihadists to accept independent Islamic arbitration to end three months of infighting, saying the violence is “sedition.”
Powerful rebel groups, including the Islamic Front and Al-Qaeda’s affiliate Nusra Front, have been locked in fierce fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) since January.
The fighting broke out after allegations that ISIS brutally abused civilians and other opposition fighters.
Tensions were further exacerbated when Nusra and other rebel factions accused ISIS of killing Islamist Front commander Abu Khaled al-Suri in a suicide car bomb attack in February in Aleppo.
Zawahri eulogized him in the audio statement posted on the Internet by jihadist groups, saying his death was the result of “sedition” underway in Syria.
He called on “every Muslim and mujahid [jihadist]” to confront sedition and “accept independent shariah arbitration,” or the ruling of an Islamic court, to end rebel infighting in Syria.
Jihadists “must disavow anyone who refuses [such] arbitration” and should not take part in the killing of fellow Islamist fighters, Zawahri added.