x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Syrian troops clash with rebels near Sayida Zeinab shrine in Damascus

Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hizbollah fighters clash with rebel forces south of a Damascus suburb that is home to a major Shiite shrine.

BEIRUT // Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hizbollah fighters clashed Wednesday with rebel forces south of a Damascus suburb that is home to a major Shiite shrine, activists said.

State TV said government forces were able to clear rebels out of one neighbourhood near the suburb of Sayida Zeinab, home to the ornate shrine of Sayida Zeinab, the Prophet Mohammed's granddaughter.

Meanwhile, rebel forces claimed they took control of a hospital in a village south of the shrine neighbourhood, from which they were battling regime forces and allied militias.

Opposition fighters control several suburbs of the capital, trying to threaten the heart of the city, seat of power for the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad. But the regime has largely been able to keep them at bay.

The area surrounding the Sayida Zeinab suburb, about 16 kilometres south of Damascus, has hosted fighting before. But the regime forces and Shiite Hizbollah fighters launched an intensified assault there on Monday, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The assault appears aimed at pushing the rebels back and securing the suburb of the shrine, said Mr Abdul-Rahman. The Observatory is a Britain-based group of anti-regime activists that has a network of activists on the ground.

Before the war, Shiite pilgrims from outside Syria regularly visited the shrine. Last year, rebels kidnapped Iranian pilgrims visiting the area, accusing them of being spies.

Now protection of the shrine has become a rallying cry for Shiite fighters backing Mr Al Assad's regime. Hizbollah guerrillas, as well as Iraqi Shiite militiamen, have been reported fighting in the area in the past weeks, though it was not clear if Iraqis were involved in the new assault.

The Syrian uprising began more than two years ago with peaceful protests against Mr Al Assad, but grew into a civil war that the UN has said has killed more than 93,000.

Also yesterday, state TV said an explosion at a military depot outside Syria's coastal city of Latakia left six people injured.

State TV said a "technical error" caused the explosion at a base used by army engineers. The observatory said it did not know the cause of the explosion in what it described as an ammunition warehouse. It said 13 people were injured, with some in critical condition.

The difference in the casualty figures could not be immediately reconciled. The observatory said smoke was rising from the depot, on the southern edge of the city.

In villages to the north of the city, government troops on Tuesday destroyed an ammunition dump and several tunnels operated by Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra, Syria's state news agency said yesterday. It quoted a military source as having said that five Libyan fighters were killed in the operation.