Middle East

East Damascus hit by fiercest clashes in months

Residents of Syria's Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of Damascus, gather near destroyed buildings to collect aid food on July 16, 2014. AFP PHOTO/RAMI AL-SAYED

BEIRUT: Eastern neighborhoods of Damascus were hit Tuesday by the fiercest fighting in months between rebels and pro-regime forces, as a new chapter of rebel in-fighting broke out in the country’s northwest.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based anti-regime group, said the air force pounded rebel areas of the eastern neighborhood of Jobar, as opposition fighters launched mortar bombs into army-held parts of Damascus, wounding 18 people.

“Starting at dawn Tuesday, Jobar saw the fiercest fighting in months, coupled with intense aerial bombardment,” said Observatory Director Rami Abdel-Rahman.

The air force carried out at least nine strikes on the neighborhood, he said, adding rebels were fighting troops backed by pro-regime militias.

Jobar, on the eastern edge of Damascus, is important because it is located at the entrance to the besieged, rebel-held eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of the capital.

It also borders Abbasiyyin, one Damascus’ main squares, where the army “deployed tanks ... and shelled rebel areas of Jobar,” Abdel-Rahman told AFP.

Fighting in the area has intensified after a relative lull of months, after rebels launched an offensive and took an army checkpoint in Jobar. The army has since reclaimed it.

Rebel fighters also fired mortar bombs at regime-controlled areas of Damascus, wounding 18 people, state news agency SANA reported.

The air force also pounded the nearby rebel-held areas of Arbin and Hammourieh, killing a man and a child, said the Observatory.

Eastern Ghouta, used as a rear base by rebels, has been under army siege for more than a year.

In recent weeks, rebels in southern Damascus have also been fighting ISIS after expelling it from four towns in eastern Ghouta.

The Observatory said fighting erupted in the town of Jisreen and saw ISIS suffer a number of casualties and prisoners, in clashes with Islamist and other militias.

Meanwhile, in the northwest province of Idlib, fighters from the Nusra front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, seized a town from an Islamist militia, the Observatory said.

The Nusra Front captured the town of Harem after weeks of skirmishes with its one-time allies.The rebel Free Syrian Army’s Hazm Movement said earlier this week that it would no longer work with the Nusra Front.

The infighting apparently began after the Al-Qaeda fighters abandoned a front threatened by government forces near the city of Aleppo. It later worsened after rebels accused Nusra fighters of not helping them hold a town on a strategic highway route in central Syria.

Although the Nusra Front is an Al-Qaeda affiliate, other Syrian rebels fought alongside their fighters, arguing that it was dominated by Syrian fighters – unlike ISIS’ foreign recruits – and said Nusra was not imposing its ultra-conservative agenda.

Abdel-Rahman said Nusra was trying to carve out its own stronghold in the Idlib province, on the Turkish border. He said they seized the city of Jisr al-Shughur earlier this month and other towns along the border route.

“It’s clear from the clashes in the area there is a project in Nusra,” he said. “They are seizing towns and areas to be connected geographically.”

Separately, at least eight people were killed in clashes between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels on the country’s Syrian border, the army said, apparently the most serious outbreak of violence since the militants declared a ceasefire last year.

A local official earlier pointed the finger at smugglers, after an armed group crossing the border from Syria into Turkey ignored calls to stop and opened fire on an army outpost.

Three border guards were wounded, two of whom later died, after they came under attack from around 15 people trying to cross into Turkey, the Turkish General Staff said in a statement.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2014, on page 1.




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