Syrian rebels capture key village near Aleppo
Khan al-Assal site of bitter fighting and alleged chemical weapons use
Syrian rebels seized a strategic village on the edge of the northern city of Aleppo on Monday, activists said, just a day after opposition fighters sustained some of their heaviest losses in months in battles to the south near Damascus.
Government troops killed at least 75 rebels in and around the Syrian capital on Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday. It was one of the deadliest single-day tolls for opposition fighters recently.
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But the capture of the village of Khan al-Assal was a rare bright spot in recent months for Syria's rebels, who have been battered by government forces on several fronts since June.
Opposition fighters on Monday took full control of the village, which lies on the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo, though clashes were still going on near Khan al-Assal. Inside Aleppo, air strikes targeted several rebel-held districts, said the Observatory, an anti-regime activists group that relies on reports from activists on the ground.
Aleppo a key front
Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has been a major front in the country's civil war, now in its third year. Rebels seized control of much of the city, and swaths of the surrounding territory, during an offensive one year ago.
Khan al-Assal has been a major front in the fight for Aleppo. In March, chemical weapons were allegedly used in the village, killing more than 31 people. The Syrian government and the rebels blame each other for the attack, and both have demanded an international investigation.
Fighting also raged in Homs, Syria's third-largest city, where the regime has been trying to oust rebels from the city centre in an offensive that started in late June. Monday's clashes concentrated on the rebel-held Khaldiyeh district, the Observatory said.
A rocket fired by government troops on Khaldiyeh hit the historic Khalid Ibn al-Walid mosque, damaging the tomb of a revered figure in Sunni Islam that is located inside the mosque.
Republican Guard foils attack on capital
Homs, a central Syrian city of about one million, has been an opposition stronghold since the uprising against President Bashar Assad's rule erupted in March 2011. It is located on the road between Damascus and regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.
Among the 75 rebels killed in the latest fighting in and around Damascus were 49 fighters who were ambushed in the northeastern suburb of Adra early on Sunday. An elite Republican Guard unit attacked the rebels as they were trying to push into the capital, the Observatory reported. The government commander leading the operation also died in the gun battle, the group said.
According to the Observatory, 17 rebels also died in fighting Sunday in Damascus neighborhoods of Qaboun and Jobar, while nine were killed in the suburbs of Daraya, Harasta and Douma.
The Syrian state news agency SANA reported the ambush in Adra but gave no casualty figures.
More than 93,000 dead so far
SANA also said a correspondent for the Russian English-language TV station Russia Today was wounded while covering in clashes in the Damascus suburb of Daraya on Sunday. Journalist Ibrahim Essa was treated for minor injuries from shrapnel and was released from the hospital the same day, SANA said.
Damascus and its suburbs have been a key battlefield for over a year, with rebels trying to push into its centre from strongholds in the suburbs. Some of Assad's most reliable units, including the Republican Guard and the 4th Division, commanded by his younger brother Maher, are charged with its defence and have been trying to flush out rebels from the enclaves.
More than 93,000 people have died in Syria's conflict, which started in 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad but escalated into a civil war. Lately, it has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone, pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against a regime dominated by Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shiite Islam.
Assad's troops have in recent weeks seized the momentum in the conflict, attacking rebels in Damascus and also in the north