Syrian security forces have engaged in fresh fighting with rebels who had entered government-controlled areas of a strategic northeastern district of Damascus, activists and army officials said.
Rebel groups, in alliance with former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, attacked government positions on the outskirts of the capital early on Sunday morning in their first offensive, which was reportedly pushed back by the army.
Rebel fighters have started a second offensive in the last 24 hours, pressing the boldest assault on the capital by opposition fighters in several years.
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In the military’s first reaction to the renewed rebel offensive on one of the capital’s major gateways, army officials told Syrian media on Monday that “terrorist groups” from former al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front had stormed parts of the district of Jobar in the northeast of the capital.
A monitor reported a large explosion at dawn followed by fierce clashes, shelling and government air strikes on opposition positions.
“There was a big blast at dawn, most likely due to a car bomb attack by the rebels against a regime position between the districts of Jobar and Qabun,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told the AFP news agency.
Syria’s air force responded with raids on opposition positions while rebels shelled the Abbasids and Tijara neighbourhoods near Jobar, a few kilometres from the city centre, Abdel Rahman said.
The official SANA news agency said 12 people were wounded in rebel shelling in the second wave of the rebel offensive.
“The Syrian army is facing attempts to advance by terrorist groups … north of Jobar and is surrounding them,” SANA reported.
In the first wave, rebels scored gains in Jobar, even briefly advancing into Abbasid Square, located two kilometres from Damascus’ Old City.
‘Rebels were pushed back’
However, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad drove them back by nightfall and began a fierce bombing campaign on Monday, the Observatory said.
Al Jazeera’s Imtiaz Tyab, reporting from neighbouring Lebanon, said the offensive was seen as an achievement by the rebel fighters, who suffered a string of losses against Asad and his allies for the last 18 months.
“Despite these losses against the network of groups led by Asad, it would appear they still have the capabilities to hit back,” he said.
Clashes on Sunday and Monday killed at least 72 people, including 38 government soldiers and 34 rebels, according to the Observatory.
Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 with protests against Assad’s rule but has evolved over the years into a complex civil war.
More than 320,000 people have been killed and millions more have been displaced.
Repeated peace talks over the years have failed to bring about a political solution, but another round of negotiations is due to begin in Geneva on Thursday.
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies