Syria rebels press advance around Damascus, Aleppo

Rebels pressed on in an offensive that has killed scores of fighters on both sides

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Rebels pressed an offensive east of Damascus and in southeastern Aleppo, in an escalation that in the past three days has killed scores of fighters on both sides, a monitoring group said on Monday.

Rebels in Eastern Ghouta east of Damascus are trying to break the army siege on opposition areas there, taking over several small villages and checkpoints, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“In the past three days, the rebels have taken over small villages and checkpoints east of Damascus and southeast of Aleppo, after launching counter-offensives on those fronts,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

Southeast of Aleppo, rebels also battled troops after a recent advance by the army, he added.

Troops loyal to Assad had for several weeks gained the upper hand against the rebels at key battle fronts across the war-ravaged country.

“Now the army is no longer advancing there,” he added.

Fighting on Monday was focused around Marj, east of Damascus, and Khanasser, southeast of Aleppo, Abdel Rahman said.

Opposition activists have described the latest counter-offensive as a bid to break the siege, which has prevented weapons and humanitarian supplies from entering the Eastern Ghouta area.

The main opposition National Coalition has linked the rebel advance to Friday’s merger of Syria’s biggest Islamist rebel groups, which did not include jihadists.

According to the Observatory, on Sunday the army used intense firepower to fight back, launching air strikes near Aleppo and around Damascus, while firing a surface-to-surface missile against Eastern Ghouta.

A security source in Damascus meanwhile told AFP “the armed men (rebels) are trying to secure some progress, but the tight ring around them means they will not succeed.”

The source also said the army was conducting “operations... to secure the areas that were reclaimed” from rebel hands in southeastern Aleppo in recent weeks.

Pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper said the army was deploying troops in the majority Christian town of Deir Attiyeh, north of Damascus, “in preparation to take it back” from rebel hands.

Located in the strategic area of Qalamoun along Lebanon’s border, Deir Attiyeh was taken over last week by rebels, among them jihadists.

In two-and-a-half years, Syria’s war has killed at least 120,000 people and forced millions more to flee their homes.

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