Thirty killed in heavy fighting in Syrian mountains

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Syrian rebels battled forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in the Jabal Akrad mountains overlooking the Mediterranean on Sunday and a monitoring group said at least 30 people were killed.

Video footage showed fighters identified as members of an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist brigade waving from the roof of an army tower in the village of Barouda, one of several Alawite villages attacked by the rebels on Sunday.

The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels are battling to overthrow Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam, in a civil war which erupted two years ago when mainly peaceful protests against his rule were put down with force.

Assad, with support from Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, has gained ground in recent months from the rebel fighters who are backed by regional Sunni Muslim powers but remain largely outgunned by his army.

The anti-Assad Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 12 rebels and 19 pro-Assad fighters - including soldiers and members of his militia known as the National Defense Army – were killed in Sunday's fighting in the mountains of east Latakia province.

A source in Latakia said the fighting started at dawn and that the rebels, based in the town of Salma, attacked 10 Alawite villages.

Ambulance sirens, punctuated by the sound of bombardment and government air raids on Salma, could be heard throughout the day, he said.

Further south, in Homs, the army launched artillery fire on remaining rebel-held areas of the city, a week after capturing the rebel district of Khaldiya - its latest victory after gains around Damascus and in the Lebanese border region near Homs.

Rebels say they need more foreign military support to reverse their military setbacks, arguing that Assad's military backing from Iran and Hezbollah has turned the tide of the war.

Syrian state media said on Sunday that Iran's new President Hassan Rowhani told Damascus that ties would remain strong.

Rowhani “stressed the Islamic Republic of Iran's determination to strengthen its relations with Syria and stand together in the face of all challenges,” SANA news agency said.

“No power in the world can destabilize or undermine the deep-rooted, historic and strategic relations between the two friendly peoples and countries,” it quoted him as telling Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki during his visit to Tehran to attend Rowhani's swearing-in ceremony.

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