Clashes rage as troops take central Syrian town: NGO

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Syrian regime troops took control of the central town of Karnaz on Thursday after 16 days of clashes with rebels, a watchdog said, also reporting three children among six killed in bombing of Damascus.

“[Rebel] fighters withdrew from Karnaz, which they seized in December last year, after heavy fighting and regular forces regained control,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

“Government troops seized nearby Mughir two days ago. This village is the gateway to Alawite villages in the west of Hama province,” he said, referring to the minority religious community of President Bashar al-Assad.

Located about halfway along a highway linking Damascus to Aleppo in the north, Hama province is home to a mixed population of Alawites as well as Sunni Muslims and Christians.

The regime is determined to keep control of it and surrounding areas to hold at bay the rebels, who control large swathes of the countryside.

In Damascus, six civilians including three under the age of 18 were killed by mortars in the northeastern district of Qaboon, as rebel bastions throughout the capital were rocked by fighting and bombing for a second straight day, the Observatory said.

The regime launched a fierce offensive on rebel belts on the outskirts of Damascus, which killed 64 people on its first day.

The Britain-based Observatory meanwhile reported regime shelling on areas along a southern highway of the capital as clashes broke out in the area.

“Rebels attacked an army checkpoint overlooking the highway and now there are fierce clashes there,” Marwan, an employee at a restaurant in the southern Midan district, told AFP on the phone.

The army also bombarded the outlying northeastern town of Harasta, as fighting erupted at a military vehicle depot nearby, the Observatory said, also reporting the arrival of army reinforcements in the embattled southwestern suburb of Daraya.

These areas of Damascus are among the strongest bastions of the rebellion against the Assad regime, which is battling to suppress a nearly two year revolt the UN says has left more than 60,000 people dead.

The army also bombed areas near Zabadani, also in rebel hands, an activist said on condition of anonymity, adding that “many of the injured were people who have fled violence in other parts of Damascus province.

“We think the army is hitting areas that are home to displaced people as a way to pressure the rebels into stopping their advances,” he told AFP over the Internet.

According to a preliminary toll compiled by the Observatory, at least 92 people were killed on Thursday, among them 37 civilians, 31 regime fighters and 24 rebels.