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Strikes pound east Damascus after rebel assault

By AFP - Mar 20,2017 - Last updated at Mar 20,2017

Smoke billows following a reported air strike in the rebel-held parts of the Jobar district, on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on Monday (AFP photo)

DAMASCUS — Syrian government forces clashed with rebels and hammered opposition-held areas of east Damascus on Monday after pushing back a surprise assault in the capital.

Rebels and allied militants, led by former Al Qaeda affiliate Fateh Al Sham Front, launched an attack early Sunday on government positions in east Damascus, initially scoring gains.

But forces loyal to President Bashar Assad drove them back by nightfall and began a fierce bombing campaign on Monday morning, a monitor said.

"There have been intense air strikes since dawn on opposition-held positions in Jobar from which the offensive was launched," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 

He could not specify whether the raids were carried out by Syrian or allied Russian warplanes.

Control of the district — which has been a battleground for more than two years and is the closest rebel position to the heart of Damascus — is divided between rebels and allied militants on one side, and government forces on the other.

On Monday, regime forces were locked in fighting with rebel groups in an industrial zone between Jobar and Qabun, a besieged, opposition-held district to the north. 

"In their assault yesterday, rebels were able to open a road for several hours between Qabun and Jobar, but the area is now a frontline and they can no longer cross between the two," Abdel Rahman said.

A Syrian military source told AFP that the army had recaptured "most of the positions where rebels advanced yesterday [Sunday]". 

"The army foiled the armed groups' plan to link the Jobar district with Qabun," the source said, adding that "military operations in the area are ongoing." 

 

 Rebels hit Russian embassy 

 

The rebel assault on Sunday marked their most important incursion inside the capital in several years. 

After seizing several buildings in Jobar, opposition fighters advanced briefly into the neighbouring Abbasid Square area — the first time in two years the opposition had broken into that district.

Activity in Abbasid Square was returning to normal levels on Monday, AFP's correspondents said, as residents stood on nearby balconies surveying the damage from the latest clashes.

Inside the Abbasid Square bus station on Monday, which rebels managed to overrun for few hours the previous day, several soldiers could be seen curled up under a blanket, taking a mid-morning nap after hours of heavy fighting.

Planes could still be heard above the city but many of the roads that had been sealed off by army troops the previous day were reopened.

The clashes killed at least 26 members of regime forces and 21 rebels and extremists, Abdel Rahman said. He did not have an immediate toll for Monday morning’s air strikes.

State news agency SANA said Syrian government troops were targeting rebel bases around Jobar on Monday.

“The military operations north of Jobar targeted the areas from which the terrorists set out, and a large number of them were killed,” it said.

The agency reported that opposition fighters on Sunday bombarded the Russian embassy compound in the capital’s Mazraa neighbourhood, but that there were no casualties.

 

New peace talks due 

 

The Islamist Faylaq Al Rahman rebel group and the Fateh Al Sham Front — known as Al Nusra Front before it renounced its ties to Al Qaeda — have a presence in Jobar.

Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule but has evolved over the years into a complex civil war.

More than 320,000 people have been killed and millions more have been displaced by the conflict.

Repeated peace talks over the years have failed to bring about a political solution to the war. Another round of negotiations is due to begin in Geneva on Thursday.

In an interview with Syrian state television late Sunday, chief government negotiator Bashar Al Jaafari accused rebels of trying to squeeze regime troops ahead of the talks. 

“The latest terrorist attacks in Damascus... are an attempt to apply political pressure on the Syrian government before it heads to Geneva,” Jaafari said. 

In recent months, the regime has sought to secure territory around the capital with renewed offensives on besieged rebel towns along with local “reconciliation” deals.

The war saw a turning point when Russia intervened in September 2015 in support of the regime, allowing pro-government forces to regain significant territory they had lost to the rebels. 

 

The retaking of all of second city Aleppo late last year was a major blow to the opposition.

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