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Lebanese army clashes with Syrian opposition fighters

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Lebanese troops fought with Syrian rebels on the border between the two countries on Sunday, in what a security source said was the first such clash between Lebanon’s army and the rebels.

The clash occurred when a Lebanese border patrol spotted the rebel fighters along the border and the rebels opened fire to prevent the patrol from approaching, a Lebanese military source said. He said there were no casualties.

There has been frequent violence on Lebanon’s border with Syria ever since an uprising broke out against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule in March last year.

There has been repeated stray fire, including shelling, as well as a series of cross-border shoot-outs in recent months.

Syria has accused Lebanon of lax control of its side of the border that has allowed rebels to smuggle in both fighters and weapons.

The Syrian regime dominated its smaller neighbor both politically and militarily for almost 30 years before withdrawing its troops in the face of the outcry that followed the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in Beirut in 2005.

Syrian army pounds Damascus suburbs

Meanwhile, Syrian army forces pounded rebel-held suburbs around Damascus with fighter jets and rockets on Sunday, activists said, killing and wounding dozens in an offensive to push rebels away from the airport and stop them closing in on the capital.

At least 173 people were killed across Syria by security force gunfire on Saturday, according to activists at the Local Coordination Committees, Al Arabiya TV reported.

The army struck hard after a week of rebel advances, including the capture of two military bases near the capital. Rebels had been planning to push into central Damascus from their strongholds on the outskirts and fighting in the past week has been fierce.

Activists said heavy rocket fire struck towns close to the Damascus airport highway, where rebels and the army were locked in three days of clashes. Some described constant shelling, similar to carpet bombing, in towns like Beit Saham.

“It was frightening because it was the first time we heard continuous shelling. Really powerful explosions, one after the other, were shaking the area. I could see fire coming up from the town,” said Samir al-Shami, from the opposition’s Syrian Youth Union, speaking by Skype.

“This was the worst day in those people’s lives.”

In a sign the government had regained some control over the airport, EgyptAir said it was resuming flights to Damascus and Aleppo on Monday after a three-day halt in which Damascus airport was effectively closed due to unrest. The airline’s head said conditions were stable.

The army’s assaults appear to have staved off a rebel advance into central Damascus so far. But neither side has gained ground in recent days, and fighting continued along the outskirts of the city despite heavy shelling by Assad’s forces.

But rebels said the area around Damascus airport was not secure, with clashes still erupting along the highway. It is difficult to verify opposition reports because the government restricts media access into Syria.

Other activists said the highway was in army hands but the area was still unstable due to fighting in nearby towns like Beit Saham, about 1 kilometre away.

“No one controls that road. The army has tanks along the road, but the whole area is exposed to rebel attacks and they could fire on it any time,” said one, asking not to be identified.

Car bombs

In Syria’s central city of Homs, a car bomb killed at least 15 people and wounded 24 on Sunday, Syria’s state news agency SANA said. It said the blast in the city’s Hamra district also damaged many nearby residential buildings. The government and the opposition traded blame for the blast.

There has been a rise in the number of car bombs around the country. The British-based Observatory, which has a network of activists across Syria, reported four car bombs on Saturday.

The group gave a preliminary death toll for Sunday’s fighting of 140, including about 39 in the Damascus suburbs.

Violence has risen in Syria particularly since rebels began to contest Assad’s control around the capital and Syria’s largest city Aleppo, but foreign powers remain deadlocked.

Western countries support the opposition but Russia, Syria’s main arms supplier, and China have blocked three U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Assad and reject sanctions.

Assad, whose family has ruled Syria autocratically for four decades, says he is fighting off radical Islamist militants funded by the West and Gulf Arab countries.

State television on Sunday said the army was “eliminating al Qaeda terrorists” in the rebel stronghold of Daraya.

Rebels said the army entered part of Daraya, a suburb on the southern outskirts of Damascus where fighters have launched mortars into the capital. Rebel spokesman Abu Nidal said the army had entered one side of the town but that rebels were still in control of the rest of the area and were fighting back.

The army was firing heavy artillery and rockets into the town, rebels said.