Rebels fight Syrian army near Assad heartland

Syrian rebels and army troops clashed in northwestern Latakia, close to President Bashar al-Assad’s ancestral home

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Islamist rebels and Syrian army troops on Thursday were engaged in heavy fighting in Syria’s northwestern Latakia province in areas close to President Bashar al-Assad’s ancestral home, the army and rebels said.

An army source told state news agency SANA fighter jets hit insurgent hideouts in the northern Latakia countryside with “tens killed and injured.”

Rebels have in the past sought to bring their four-year-long battle to topple Assad’s rule close to the coastal areas in government-held Latakia, the stronghold of Assad’s minority Alawite sect. Latakia is the main port in Syria and crucial to the rebels goal of toppling Assad’s government.

Two rebel sources said the fighting was near the mountains of Jabal al-Akrad, close to some of the highest peaks in Syria including Nabi Younis that overlook Alawite villages and close to Qardaha, the hometown of the Assad family.

“The capture of the peaks would make the Alawite villages in our firing range,” said one rebel field commander from Ahrar al Sham based in Idlib on Skpye.

Insurgents have captured strategic territory in the South and in northwestern Idlib province, where they have edged closer to Latakia.

In August 2013, Islamist rebels helped by foreign fighters were able to briefly capture villages populated by Assad’s Alawite minority.

Diplomats say rebels are trying to pressure the overstretched army on as many fronts as possible to force the overtaxed military to spread its resources ever more thinly.

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