MISHERFEH, Syria: Government forces Thursday bombarded rebel positions with artillery and warplanes in the coastal province of Latakia, trying to push back opposition fighters who over the past week made gains in President Bashar Assad’s ancestral heartland.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 13 rebels, among them six non-Syrians, were killed in the strikes or in clashes in northern Latakia province, while 23 government troops and paramilitaries died in the fighting.
Government troops have been battling for days with the rebels from several Islamist groups, including the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which launched the offensive in the province a week ago.
They seized a number of towns, a border crossing with Turkey and – for the first time in the 3-year-old conflict – a tiny stretch of coast giving the rebels an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea.
Separately, an official said Turkish artillery returned fire into Syrian territory after a shell from fighting in the neighboring country landed on a road near a Turkish border town.
The governor’s office for Turkey’s Hatay province said no one was hurt by the shell, which was fired during fighting between Syrian regime and opposition forces over the predominantly Armenian town of Kasab. The shell strayed three kilometers inside Turkey.
Its office said Turkish artillery units near the border retaliated for the shelling, firing at the region it originated from.
The latest move comes days after Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet that it said violated Turkey’s airspace.
Fierce clashes were ongoing as the army tried to wrestle back Kasab and nearby village of Nabaain, both seized by the rebels.
The Observatory said a senior military intelligence officer for Latakia province managed to escape Nabaain after spending five days cornered there, without the insurgents being aware of his presence.
Artillery aimed at rebels in Kasab echoed across the area at the rate of one every two minutes, according to an Associated Press reporter in Misherfeh, a village nestled at the foothills of mountains overlooking Kasab.
A field commander speaking to reporters in Misherfeh said the army was making progress against the opposition fighters.
“The army and the National Defense Forces are moving toward Kasab from Nabaain and Qastal Maaf,” said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Latakia, a mountainous and wooded region, is the heartland of Assad’s Alawite sect.
Government aircraft dropped several barrel bombs on a hilltop area known as Observatory 45, also seized by rebels several days ago, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which follows the conflict through activists on the ground. The Local Coordination Committees, a Syria-based opposition group that also documents the conflict, reported two government airstrikes on the strategic post.The post is important because it has a commanding view of the contested surrounding mountains and green plains below.
The rebel push into Latakia appeared to have caught Assad’s forces off guard. It came as the military was celebrating gains near the Lebanon’s border and around Damascus. The military rushed in fighters from a pro-government militia and warplanes to bolster troops in the counteroffensive.
Over the past month, Assad’s forces, backed by his allies from Hezbollah, have captured a series of rebel-held towns and villages along Syria’s border with Lebanon, squeezing the flow of rebel fighters, weapons and supplies across the frontier.
Tens of thousands of Syrians have fled into Lebanon since the government offensive in the Qalamoun region in Syria began in November.
Fighting in Syria along the Lebanon border has subsided in recent days after the fall of the last rebel stronghold in the area, Yabroud, but Thursday, rebels and Hezbollah-backed government troops advanced against another border town, Flita, Hezbollah sources and the Observatory told The Daily Star.
“There was heavy fighting yesterday evening and last night, as the regime tried to take the town, but that has now stopped,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman, the director of the Observatory.
A leader of the Military Council of Qalamoun, a rebel group, was killed in clashes, and around eight others, including one of his assistants, were killed in a helicopter barrel bomb attack, Abdel-Rahman added.
In Homs, Syria’s state news agency said a correspondent for a pro-government TV station was injured while on assignment there.
SANA said Nibal Ibrahim, a correspondent for Al-Ikhbariya TV was shot in the leg while filming an underground tunnel used by rebels in the central city. SANA said terrorists, a term officials use for rebels, were behind the attack on Ibrahim.
Also in Homs, a car bomb exploded in the city, killing one person and wounding 11 others, SANA said. The Observatory said the explosion went off in the predominantly Alawite Arman neighborhood.