Syrian troops, rebels clash south of Damascus

Syrian troops, rebels clash south of Damascus

DAMASCUS (AP) — Syrian troops clashed with rebels on the southern outskirts of Damascus on Tuesday, activists said, part of a weekslong government advance to retake opposition-held areas around the capital and in the northern province of Aleppo.

Rebels seeking to overthrow President Bashar Assad have been weakened by infighting and what they say are waning weapon supplies from neighboring Turkey. A government policy of besieging rebel-held areas has also cowed fighters in some areas.

The fighting came as rebels intensified their mortar fire into the heart of Damascus — an often random shelling that has killed dozens of civilians this year.

On Tuesday, families in the Bab Sharqi neighborhood buried four Christian children killed a day earlier when mortar fire hit the bus that was taking them home from private school, killing the driver as well.

"Those children were angels," wept Marwan Qabalan, a family friend who came to pick up the body of nine-year-old Vaniciya Mekho from the morgue in the Mujtahed Hospital.

The morgue visit was organized by Syrian officials who otherwise typically restrict reporters' access to events.

Her parents couldn't bear to come, Qabalan said. The child was still dressed in her school uniform and blood covered her clothes and face.

Another hospital medic draped a white robe over six-year-old Majd Shahadeh, before he was placed in a coffin. Somber men carried a series of simple white coffins with gold crosses to waiting vehicles.

Terrified parents kept many pupils home from John of Damascus school, said education official Rami Shahin, adding that only 100 of some 750 pupils attended Tuesday.

Mortar shells also landed elsewhere in the capital Tuesday, including near the office of a pro-Assad Palestinian group, the state news agency said, adding that 10 people were wounded.

Tuesday's fighting centered around the suburb of Hejeira, one of a patchwork of sprawling neighborhoods and towns just south of Damascus that have been opposition strongholds for the past year.

Government troops have taken control of four nearby strongholds in recent weeks, most recently the nearby town of Sabina.

Assad's troops were backed by Shiite fighters from Iraq and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground. A spokeswoman for a Damascus-based Syrian rebel council backed up the claim, speaking on condition of anonymity however for fear of reprisals.

The Syrian state news agency and the Observatory said a truce was brokered in the nearby Palestinian-dominated Yarmouk neighborhood, where pro-and-anti Assad gunmen surrendered their weapons and allowed government forces to man surrounding checkpoints.

Other activists could not immediately confirm the deal, and there were still reports of fighting Tuesday in Yarmouk, from which thousands of Palestinians have been displaced.

Meanwhile, rebels in the northern city of Aleppo announced they were on high alert fearing Assad-loyal forces would try storm their eastern strongholds, said the Observatory and an Aleppo-based activist who uses the name Abu Raed, who does not use his full name in order to avoid identification by government forces.

Rebels ordered gunmen to present themselves for duty or be punished.

"They want to halt the army's advance," said Abu Raed. "The regime is coming."

Syrian troops wrested a series of rebel-strongholds around Aleppo city in recent weeks, including the town of Safira, a military base that oversees the Aleppo airport and the town of Tel Aran.

Activists blamed infighting, mostly between the al-Qaida linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and other rebel groups. ISIL has sought to take over rebel-held areas in northern Syria, pushing the already-chaotic opposition fighters into further disarray.

Abu Raed said Free Syrian Army fighters, technically Western backed, had not been sent weapons or ammunition for at least a month. He said it was part of a regional tactic to force Syria's opposition to agree to participate in an international peace conference that is meant to negotiate a peaceful end to the three-year conflict.

Syria's fractured opposition has so far demurred from saying outright it would attend — welcoming the conference but with preconditions unlikely to be met.

"The situation in Aleppo is pathetic. We don't have ammunition for heavy weapons," said Abu Raed.

The rebel supporter said the hard-line Islamic brigades that have emerged as the most powerful fighting forces in rebel areas are still receiving military supplies.

"If the situation continues like this, with the divisions between the FSA and the Islamic Brigades, we will lose a lot," he added.