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Army ambush kills 175 Syrian rebels

Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Picture: Reuters

Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). Picture: Reuters

  • by Barbara Surk
 

SYRIAN army troops killed 175 rebels in an ambush yesterday south of Damascus, state media reported, a major attack targeting mostly al-Qaida-linked fighters as part of a government effort to secure the capital.

SYRIAN army troops killed 175 rebels in an ambush yesterday south of Damascus, state media reported, a major attack targeting mostly al-Qaida-linked fighters as part of a government effort to secure the capital.

The dawn attack by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the opposition-held area of eastern Ghouta likely will push rebel groups against his rule further away from Damascus, his seat of power.

The capital’s suburbs have been opposition strongholds since March 2011, when the revolt against the ruling family began.

If confirmed, it would be one of the deadliest attacks by government forces against rebels in the area.

Syrian state news agency Sana quoted a field commander in the eastern Ghouta area saying most of rebels killed in the assault near Oteibah lake southeast of Damascus belonged to the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front rebel group.

The report said several of those killed were foreign fighters who came to Syria from Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Qatar to fight.

Sana said the army’s operation dealt “a smashing blow to terrorists,” a term Syrian state media uses for rebels.

The agency posted several photographs on its website showing dozens of bodies of men lying in a dirt track of an open field, some wearing fatigues, but most wearing civilian clothes. Some appeared to have been carrying bags of clothes and bottles of water which were scattered on the ground, suggesting they were moving locations when they were ambushed.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the killings, saying that 70 rebels were killed in yesterday’s assault.

The Observatory, which has been documenting Syria’s nearly three-year-old conflict by relying on activists’ reports on the ground, says the number of those killed likely will rise because 89 rebels have been reported missing.

In a live broadcast from the area, Lebanon-based television station Al-Mayadeen also showed dozens of bodies scattered along an unpaved road.

An army colonel told Al-Mayadeen that his troops acted on intelligence and the rebels lost “more than 150 men” in the assault.

Syrian army tanks and armoured personnel carriers were seen in the broadcast as were soldiers patrolling on foot.

Syria’s conflict started as largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule in March 2011. It has gradually turned into a civil war that has taken increasingly sectarian overtones, pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad’s government that is dominated by Alawites, a sect in Shiite Islam. More than 140,000 people have been killed, activists say.

Meanwhile, Syria has agreed a new timetable to remove its chemical weapons by late April after failing to meet a deadline to ship out the arsenal earlier this month.

Under a US-Russian deal, reached after a chemical weapons attack killed hundreds of people around Damascus last year, President Assad’s government should have handed over 1,300 tonnes of toxic chemicals by 5 February for destruction abroad.

But only three cargoes have been shipped out of the country so far, barely 10 per cent of the total stockpile declared to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons overseeing the process along with the United Nations.

 

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