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Syria army ambush kills dozens of rebels

BEIRUT, Dec 27, (AFP): Dozens of rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad were killed Friday in a Syrian army ambush near Damascus, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The Britain-based group said the dawn attack came “in the area located between Marah and Qustul, near the historic town of Maalula”. The watchdog, which relies on activists countrywide for its reports, could not provide an exact toll, but said “another 20 rebels” were wounded. State news agency SANA quoted an unidentified military source as saying that “a unit of our brave army ambushed and killed dozens of terrorists from Al-Nusra Front”. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Al- Nusra and other Islamist battalions first entered the ancient Christian town of Maalula in Damascus province in September. They were briefly driven out by the army before quickly reclaiming it. The rebels have for several weeks reportedly held a group of 12 nuns from the town. The Observatory reported “air strikes on the edges of Yabrud” near Maalula, which is in the Qalamoun mountains. Clashes also raged between Islamist rebels and troops backed by Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah forces in Adra northeast of Damascus, the Observatory said. Islamist and jihadist rebels broke into Adra, which is home to a patchwork of religious communities and had been under regime control, on December 11. Many residents are from the minority Alawite sect, like Assad, while most of Syria’s rebels are Sunni.

Regime forces on Friday also pounded Douma east of Damascus, and dropped TNT-packed barrel bombs on Khan al- Sheikh southwest of the capital. In the north, the regime has waged a major aerial offensive against rebel-held areas of Aleppo, which since December 15 has killed hundreds of people, mostly civilians. An air strike hit Al-Bab in Aleppo province on Friday, said the Observatory, without specifying whether there were casualties. SANA reported that “a terrorist mortar attack on Al-Jamaliya (a regime-held Aleppo district) killed four people and wounded 12 others”. State media has referred to dissidents — rebels and peaceful opponents alike — as “terrorists” since anti-Assad protests began in March 2011.

The protests morphed into an insurgency after the regime unleashed a brutal crackdown against peaceful dissent. Five people, including an elderly man, a woman and a disabled man, have died of hunger in a besieged Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus, a monitoring group said Friday. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops have sealed off several rebel-held areas ringing the capital, some for more than a year, prompting fears of a worsening humanitarian disaster as citizens run low on food and fuel. “Five people died, including an elderly man, a disabled man and a woman, as a result of malnutrition and the lack of the necessary treatment,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britainbased group relying on sources inside the war-torn country.

Their deaths were “the result of the siege imposed by regime troops” on the Yarmuk refugee camp, it said. The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees and several rights groups have called on the Syrian regime to lift the siege of Yarmuk, and on both troops and rebels to allow aid into the camp. The Syrian army has besieged several rebel areas, including Moadamiyet al- Sham southwest of the capital, where several people have reportedly starved to death.

The extreme shortages led rebels in the town to announce a truce with the regime starting Wednesday, on condition that food was allowed in, but the ceasefire was broken a day later. On Friday, the local opposition council said that while “no food aid has yet entered the town... the parties to the truce remain committed to the agreement”. Syria’s nearly three-year civil war has claimed an estimated 126,000 lives and displaced millions of people.

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