Syrian regime battles rebels outside Damascus

Associated Press
FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 file citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows rebels from al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, as they sit on a truck full of ammunition, at Taftanaz air base,  that was captured by the rebels, in Idlib province, northern Syria.  Al-Qaida's branch in Iraq said it has merged with Syria's extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, a move that shows the rising confidence of radicals within the Syrian rebel movement and is likely to trigger renewed fears among its international backers. Arabic on the flag, right, reads, "There is no God only God and Mohamad his prophet, Jabhat al-Nusra." (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)
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FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 file citizen journalism image provided by Edlib News Network, ENN, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows rebels from al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, as they sit on a truck full of ammunition, at Taftanaz air base, that was captured by the rebels, in Idlib province, northern Syria. Al-Qaida's branch in Iraq said it has merged with Syria's extremist Jabhat al-Nusra, a move that shows the rising confidence of radicals within the Syrian rebel movement and is likely to trigger renewed fears among its international backers. Arabic on the flag, right, reads, "There is no God only God and Mohamad his prophet, Jabhat al-Nusra." (AP Photo/Edlib News Network ENN, File)

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops battled rebels in the outskirts of Damascus on Wednesday and pressed on with a counteroffensive against opposition fighters in the south to prevent their advance on the capital.

The fighting came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was meeting with Syrian opposition leaders in London to discuss ways to step up aid to rebels fighting to topple the regime in Damascus.

With the recent influx of better weapons and other foreign aid, the rebels have made major gains in the south, seizing military bases and towns in the strategically important region between Damascus and the border with Jordan, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) from the capital.

In their campaign to topple Assad, the opposition fighters hope to eventually storm Damascus from the south.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Wednesday's clashes were focused on opposition strongholds around the capital, including the suburbs of Daraya and Harasta. Fighting also raged in and around the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and its main commercial hub, they said.

The activists said both sides sustained losses on the two battlefields. Damascus suburbs and Aleppo have been the scene of major urban warfare in Syria's two-year uprising against Assad's rule. The revolt started as peaceful protests inspired by other Arab Spring uprisings but later descended into civil war.

At least 28 rebels and 13 soldiers were killed in the fighting around Damascus, while 15 opposition fighters and 28 government troops died in the fighting in Aleppo on Wednesday, the Observatory said.

The group relies on a network of Syria-based activists that have been tracking the number of dead, injured and missing since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

The government brought reinforcements to Damascus suburbs and further south on Sunday to regain control of areas the rebels recently captured between the Jordanian border and Damascus, the seat of Assad's power.

Both sides consider Damascus the ultimate prize in the civil war.

The rebels now control large swaths of northern Syria, and last month captured their first provincial capital, the city of Raqqa. The also control whole districts of Aleppo.

The government has been hitting the rebel-held areas in the north with airstrikes in recent weeks, reclaiming some of the territory from the rebels, including several villages along the route that links Aleppo with its airport to the city's east.

The rebels have been trying to capture the airport for months, in hope of having their own airstrip to receive aid flights. The airfield and much of the area around the airport, including an air base, remain under the regime's control.

More than 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict, the United Nations says.

In London, Kerry was meeting with the opposition's interim prime minister, Ghassan Hitto, and other senior figures from the Syrian National Coalition.

The Western-backed alliance has been marred by severe divisions in its ranks since its formation late last year in Qatar, and its leaders are mostly seen as disconnected from the myriad rebel forces fighting inside Syria.

Hitto, who has lived in the United States for many years, was elected last month to head the SNC. On Saturday, the coalition said he has started reviewing candidates for a planned rebel interim government that will consist of 11 ministries and will be based inside Syria.

The coalition said the candidates are not allowed to have ties to the Assad regime and must be advocates or supporters "of the Syrian revolution."

In London, Kerry will have a one-on-one meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov later Wednesday. Russia has been Assad's staunch ally, supplying Damascus with weapons, shielding the regime from tougher U.N. sanctions and supporting Assad in his resolve to remain in power.

The opposition leaders insist Assad must step down before they can hold talks with Damascus on a political transition.

During his stop in Israel, Kerry said the Obama administration was holding intense talks on how to boost aid to Syria's rebels and that it was important to increase pressure on Assad's regime to get it to the negotiating table.

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