Syria army steps up operations near Damascus

2014-04-04 19:22
Locally made shells which rebels call a Hell Cannon, fired by rebels against the Syrian government forces, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP, Aleppo Media Centre, AMC)

Locally made shells which rebels call a Hell Cannon, fired by rebels against the Syrian government forces, in Aleppo, Syria. (AP, Aleppo Media Centre, AMC)

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Beirut - Syria's army tanks and warplanes pounded besieged Mleiha east of Damascus on Friday, as it pressed 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 the town, the Observatory added, a day after 22 opposition fighters were killed in the army's bombardment.

According to the Britain-based monitoring group, regime warplanes on Friday carried out four air strikes against 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 frequently comes under rebel shelling.

State news agency Sana said on 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 added that 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 the Eastern Ghouta area, suffering from severe food shortages in many towns and villages, as well as bearing the brunt of daily shelling.

Famous jihadist dies

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 Assad's clan and his Alawite sect.

Friday's battles were 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, according to the Observatory.

The group also said Moroccan jihadist Ibrahim Benchekroun, a former Guantanamo inmate, was killed in the fighting in Latakia.

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

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