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Syrian troops and rebels open new battlefront near Damascus

People walk on a street lined with buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to P
People walk on a street lined with buildings damaged by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet loyal to P

By Khaled Yacoub Oweis

AMMAN (Reuters) - Heavy fighting erupted in an area between Damascus and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday in what could be a new battlefront between Syrian troops and rebels, opposition sources said.

Rebel fighters attacked an army barracks manned by elite Republican Guards and the Fourth Mechanised Division, headed by President Bashar al-Assad's brother Maher, in Khan Sheih, 6 km (4 miles) from the outskirts of Damascus, civilian activists and an opposition military source said.

Clashes intensified three days after Sunni Muslim rebels overran a missile squadron in the area, killing 30 soldiers, mostly from Assad's minority Alawite sect, the sources said.

The region also hosts a Palestinian refugee camp.

An opposition campaigner in the nearby town of Jedeidet said troops stationed in hills overlooking Khan Sheih were attacking the area with multiple rocket launchers to try to dislodge rebels surrounding the barracks.

"I counted up to 20 explosions a minute on Khan Sheih," the activist, who uses the pseudonym of Abdo, told Reuters by phone.

A rebel commander in contact with the fighters said a force of some 1,000 insurgents had moved into Khan Sheih, which is 25 km from the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967.

He said rebels had also attacked Syrian army positions in the town of Qunaitra, near the ceasefire line with Israel, and further south near the Golan, but those troops were well dug in.

"The aim is to cut supplies to Qunaitra," he said, adding that the Khan Sheih operations were also intended to relieve pressure on the southwestern Damascus suburb of Daraya, where a rebel pocket has been under army siege for two months.

The main front around Damascus has been in eastern suburbs and neighborhoods and suburbs. Assad's forces have made incursions into Daraya on the highway to Jordan, but have not been able to retake it, opposition sources say.

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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