Syrian jets bomb rebel-held areas near Damascus

Associated Press
In this Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013 photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrians take part in a funeral procession for those killed in a car bomb explosion at a headquarters of a pro-government militia late Monday in the central town of Salamiya in Hama province, Syria. The Observatory said on Tuesday that at least 42 people were killed in the car bomb attack in the Salamiya blast. The Syrian government rarely comments on regime casualties in the nearly two years of fighting. (AP Photo/SANA)
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BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian warplanes bombed rebel-held areas near Damascus on Thursday as President Bashar Assad's troops battled opposition fighters for control of a strategic road that links the capital with the main airport.

The fighting around Damascus was part of the government offensive to dislodge rebels from towns and villages ringing the Syrian capital — areas that have been opposition strongholds since the uprising against Assad's rule began nearly two years ago.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighter jets carried out eight airstrikes on Daraya, a strategic suburb close to a key military air base southwest of Damascus. The group, which relies on reports from activists on the ground, also said heavy fighting was reported near Damascus International Airport and that the regime was shelling the town of Aqraba along the airport road.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

According to the United Nations, more than 60,000 people have been killed in the Syrian conflict, which began when opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.

Because of its strategic location near a military base, Syrian troops have been pounding rebel positions in Daraya for weeks. Earlier this month, the government claimed its troops had regained control over much of the district from where the rebels have been threatening Damascus, the seat of Assad's power.

Activists posted a video of the Daraya fighting online that shows artillery shells slamming into concrete buildings, sending plumes of thick, white and gray smoke into the sky.

Daraya is flanked by the key districts of Mazzeh, which is home to the military air, and Kfar Sousseh, where the government headquarters, the General Security intelligence agency's head office and the Interior Ministry are located.

State-run news agency SANA said troops have been battling rebels in the oil-rich province of al-Hasaka in the country's northeast, killing and wounding several "terrorists" — the term the government and state media use to refer to rebels.

Also in the north, SANA said terrorists shot and killed a math teacher, Nabih Jamil al-Saad, on Wednesday near his home in the town of Hmaida in Raqqa province. A day earlier, rebels killed Mamdouh Abudllah Bin Abd Dibeh, a cardiologist, in front of his clinic in Sheik Mheddin area of Damascus, SANA said.

It was not clear if either the teacher or the doctor had ties to the regime. Rebels have targeted government officials, civil workers and prominent personalities, such as actors, who are known Assad supporters.

In a separate report, SANA said many residents of the central town of Salamiya in Hama province took part in a funeral procession for those killed in a car bomb explosion at a headquarters of a pro-government militia late Monday. The Observatory said earlier that at least 42 people were killed in the car bombing, but SANA did not say how many died.

In photographs published by the official news wire, dozens of men are seen standing in front of 11 caskets, wrapped into Syrian flags. Another photograph by SANA shows hundreds of men rallying at what the official news wire said was a funeral procession at Salamiya's al-Huriyeh square.

Also on Thursday, in what Syrian state TV said was a live broadcast, Assad was seen sitting cross-legged on the floor of the al-Afram mosque in Damascus during prayers marking Prophet's Muhammad's birthday.

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.

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