BEIRUT: Syrian rebels have launched an offensive near the border with Lebanon to relieve pressure on the Qalamoun front north of Damascus with fighting flaring Thursday around the town of Qusair, which was taken last year by regime troops backed by Hezbollah fighters.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported clashes between troops and rebels in the Qusair area, saying there were casualties on both sides.
Syria’s state news agency, meanwhile, said government forces “wiped out” a group of gunmen who were trying to infiltrate from Lebanon.
SANA said the gunmen were trying to head in the direction of Qusair.
A Lebanese security source said government shelling from Syria wounded nine Syrian fighters on the Lebanese border who had fled fighting in their country.
“Nine Syrians were wounded as a result of cross-border artillery shelling from Syria that struck the area of Khirbet Daoud in the Arsal countryside,” the source told AFP.
“There are groups of Syrians, most of them fighters, in the countryside of Arsal” in the eastern Bekaa Valley, the source added.
The fighters had “fled from Qalamoun in Damascus province for Lebanon in recent weeks because of intensified fighting between Syrian troops and armed opposition groups.”
The rebels engaged government forces in fierce fighting near the town of Jousieh near Arsal, security sources told The Daily Star. The sources said they were trying to offset the government’s offensive against towns and villages in the mountainous Qalamoun region.
Heavy shelling was reported on the town of Yabroud, as pro-opposition media outlets adopted a blackout policy on other details of the fighting underway in Qalamoun.
Elsewhere, the Observatory said that at least three people were killed and 12 wounded when regime aircraft dropped barrel bombs on the town of Khan al-Shih, outside Damascus.
The crude devices were also dropped on the Damascus suburb of Daraya, and activists posted videos of the destruction.
Activist Hussam Ziadeh, from the Daraya Local Council Media Center told The Daily Star that three explosive barrels had been dropped on residential neighborhoods starting from the early morning.
He said the barrels wounded four women and a young girl.
“We are being subjected to barrel bombardment for the third day. This is the ninth or tenth barrel to fall on the neighborhoods,” he said.
“But this was the first time we had casualties. About 80 percent of the neighborhoods are empty,” he said.
The Observatory cited reports that Gen. Suheil Hasan, believed to be leading the “barrel bomb” offensive in Aleppo, was wounded in the city.
The Observatory put Wednesday’s final death toll at 175 people and said that 73,000 people were killed in 2013, making it the bloodiest year of the three-year uprising.
It said eight people held by the government in Aleppo’s central prison have died over the past two days from malnutrition. Another four people died elsewhere in Syria due to food shortages and a lack of medical supplies, the Observatory said.
Separately, Turkey denied local media reports that its security forces had seized a truck laden with weapons bound for Syria.
“The truck was loaded with aid for the Turkmen community in Syria,” Interior Minister Efkan Ala told reporters.
Hurriyet newspaper had reported that security forces stopped a truck loaded with arms and ammunition on the Syrian border Wednesday and arrested three people including a Syrian.
The drivers claimed they were carrying aid on behalf of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH). But IHH denied the allegations as “slanderous.”
“Our organization has nothing to do with this case,” a spokesman told AFP.