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ISIS attacks Assad forces near capital, 18 killed in Aleppo

Some 50,000 residents in an Aleppo district were also caught in crossfire of regime-held districts and those controlled by rebels

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ISIS militants launched attacks on government-held areas near Damascus overnight on Tuesday and Syrian rebels shelled on Wednesday a Kurdish neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo, killing 18 people.

Later the day, the Syrian army and its allies launched a counteroffensive to recapture a village south of the city of Aleppo that was overrun by al-Qaeda-allied militant a few days earlier, activists said Wednesday.

The development came as Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, known as the Nusra Front, confirmed on Wednesday the death of Abu Firas al-Souri, a senior figure in the group, in a U.S. airstrike in the northern province of Idlib on Sunday.

Syrian activist groups said the push near Aleppo, which started late Tuesday night, is aimed at retaking the village of Tel al-Ais, which overlooks the Damascus-Aleppo highway.

ISIS said in a statement it had attacked the Tishrin power station 50 km (30 miles) northeast of the capital and a Syrian military source acknowledged the group had staged assaults, but said all those who took part had been killed.

Syrian and allied forces backed by Russian air strikes have forced ISIS militants out of the town of al-Qaryatain, 100 km (60 miles) west of the ancient city of Palymrya, itself recaptured by the government last week.

The Syrian military source said Tuesday night’s attacks outside Damascus appeared to be the militant group’s response to its reverses around Palymra.

ISIS attackers, using five bomb-laden cars, also struck military positions near the airport, southeast of Damascus, killing 12 soldiers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organization that tracks the war, said.

Government forces responded with shelling and air strikes in that area, and jets also struck the town of Dumeir, 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Damascus, which is held by a rebel group sympathetic to ISIS, the Observatory said.

It added that the strikes killed at least nine civilians there and that around 15 ISIS militants, as well as the drivers of its five bomb-laden cars, died in the clashes.

The Syrian military source said 13 of the group’s fighters had been killed in clashes in the area around Dumeir.

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18 killed in Aleppo

ISIS has also been losing ground to US-allied Kurdish forces in northern Syria, and in recent days to Turkish-backed rebel groups fighting a separate battle against the group north of Aleppo.

A pregnant woman and three children were among 18 civilians killed when Syrian rebels shelled a Kurdish neighborhood in the northern city of Aleppo, the Observatory said.

The Observatory said 70 people, including 30 children, were also wounded in Tuesday’s attack, adding that the shelling was a violation of a ceasefire agreement.

“A major shelling attack on Tuesday has left 18 civilians dead, including three children and two women, a pregnant one and an elderly one,” according to the Observatory.

The attack targeted the majority-Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsud, where some 50,000 residents are caught in the crossfire of regime-held districts and those controlled by rebels.

“This is a very clear violation of the ceasefire” in place in Syria since February 27, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Rebels including Ahrar al-Sham, which is allied to Al-Qaeda in Syria, kept up Wednesday their shelling of Sheikh Maqsud which overlooks regime-held areas, said the Observatory.

Abdel Rahman said the rebels want to take the neighborhood because it would allow them to have “a launching pad for attacks” on government forces.

Aleppo became a divided city in 2012 after a rebel onslaught was met with resistance by the army.

Kurds represent about 15 percent of Syria’s population and have tried to avoid confrontation with the regime or non-jihadist rebels since war broke out in 2011.

But the rise of ISIS, which has seized large swaths of the war-torn country, has seen the Kurds lead the fight against the militants in parts of Syria.

On March 17, Kurdish parties, including the powerful Democratic Union Party (PYD) and their allies, announced the creation of a "federal system" in northern Syria.

The announcement was heavily criticized by Syria’s opposition, who have vowed to use “all the political and military force” at their disposal to fight it.

Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests but has since morphed into a multi-front war drawing in regional powers.

(Reuters, AFP)