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Published: Wednesday, 2/26/2014

Syrian forces claim major blow against rebels

BY BEN HUBBARD AND MOHAMMAD GHANNAM
NEW YORK TIMES

BEIRUT — Syrian forces killed scores of rebel fighters in an ambush east of the capital, Damascus, on today, opposition activists and the government said, dealing a major blow to efforts by rebels to open a supply line to a besieged area.

The exact death toll remained unclear, with the government claiming that it had killed more than 175 rebels, many of them non-Syrian jihadists, and an opposition activist in the area saying more than 40 fighters were killed, with dozens more unaccounted for.

For months, government forces have been besieging a number of rebel-held areas near Damascus, causing fuel and food shortages intended to weaken the rebels.

The Syrian state news agency, SANA, said government forces had relied on intelligence information to track the rebels’ movements and ambush them, killing more than 175 fighters from the Nusra Front, Syria’s al-Qaida affiliate, including citizens of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. SANA and pro-government activists also published images of dozens of bodies strewn about a dirt road through a field.

A video released by Lebanon’s Al Manar TV appeared to support the government’s claim of huge casualties, showing a long line of people said to be rebel fighters walking along a distant road that then blows up, apparently because it had been lined with explosives. While most of the people fall to the ground, immobile, a few try to flee amid the sound of automatic gunfire before another large explosion hits the area.

Al Manar is run by Hezbollah, an ally of President Bashar Assad of Syria, and has sent many of its own fighters to battle the rebels in Syria.

An opposition activist who gave only his first name, Rafi, said via Skype from an eastern suburb of Damascus that 70 fighters from the Nusra Front and other rebel brigades had set out to try to open a supply line to a besieged area east of Damascus when mines embedded in the road near the village of Otaybeh exploded and government forces fired on them with machine guns.

At least 44 rebels were killed and the rest were missing, Rafi said, adding that he suspected that an informer had tipped off the government to the rebels’ plans.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain that tracks the conflict through a network of contacts inside Syria, said 70 rebels had been killed while more than twice that many were missing.

The observatory also said forces from Hezbollah had taken part in the ambush.



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