Mideast Syria

Smoke billows amid buildings at a bomb explosion in Daraya, outside of Damascus where rebels have focused on government-held areas. (Shaam News Network/The Associated Press)

Syrian rebels assaulted a checkpoint in a pro-government suburb of Damascus on Saturday, setting off a suicide vehicle bomb that killed 16 soldiers, activists said.

The state news agency SANA confirmed the blast in the suburb of Jaramana and said it caused casualties, but did not give a number.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that rebels led by the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, or Nusra Front, carried out the attack while trying to capture the checkpoint near the town of Mleiha adjoining Jaramana. It reported heavy fighting after the blast.

Rebels control much of the countryside around Damascus but Jaramana, a Christian and Druze area, is mostly loyal to President Bashar Assad. Opposition fighters have previously targeted it with bombings and mortar rounds. Assad has drawn support from Syria's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and members of his Alawite sect. The rebels are dominated by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority.

Meanwhile, nine Lebanese pilgrims held by Syrian rebels returned to Beirut Saturday as part of a negotiated three-way hostage deal.

Their release ends a year-and-a-half ordeal for the Shia men, kidnapped in May 2012 while on their way from Iran to Lebanon through Turkey and Syria. It also concluded part of an ambitious swap that officials say will include the release of female prisoners held by Syria's government and resulted in the release Saturday two Turkish Airlines pilots held by militants in Lebanon

At least 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the country's civil war, now in its third year.

UN plea for ceasefire

On Saturday, the UN’s humanitarian chief, Valerie Amos, called for an immediate ceasefire and safe passage for civilians trapped in Moadamiyeh. Amos says government forces have denied aid groups access to the area for months.

“The humanitarian community has stressed time and time again that people must not be denied life-saving help and that the fighting has to stop. We have been denied access to Moadamiyeh in Rural Damascus for months," she said in a statement. 

"Although the evacuation of more than 3,000 people took place on Sunday, the same number or more remain trapped. There are reports of continued shelling and fighting in the area, preventing the completion of the rescue operation.”

Amos said people in other communities also remain trapped including Zahra, Nubil, old Aleppo, old Homs and Hassakey.