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Clashes in Syria's Damascus after surprise rebel attack

Fierce clashes reported in eastern areas of the Syrian capital following ambush by rebel-aligned forces.

Damascus

Heavy clashes rocked eastern districts of the Syrian capital on Sunday after rebel fighters launched a surprise assault on government forces there, a monitor and state television said.

Steady shelling and sniper fire could be heard across Damascus on Sunday as rebel factions allied with former Al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front launched an attack on government positions in the city's east.

The attack began early on Sunday "with two car bombs and several suicide attackers" on the Jobar district, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Rebels then advanced into the nearby Abbasid Square area, seizing several buildings and firing a barrage of rockets into multiple Damascus neighbourhoods, Abdel Rahman said.

Government forces responded with nearly a dozen air strikes on Jobar, he added.

Control of Jobar - which has been a battleground district for more than two years - is divided between rebels and allied hardline fighters on one side, and government forces on the other. It is one of three pockets in the Syrian capital still in opposition hands. 

Syrian state television reported that the army was "thwarting an attack by terrorists" with artillery fire and had ordered residents to stay inside.

It aired footage from Abbasid Square, typically buzzing with activity but now empty except for the sound of shelling.

Residents said artillery shells and rockets were landing inside the heart of the city.

The Observatory said rebel shells hit several nearby districts in Damascus, including Bab Touma, Rukn al-Din and the Abbasiyin area.

Several schools announced they would close through Monday, and many civilians cowered inside in fear of stray bullets and shelling.

'From defensive to offensive'

According to the Observatory, the Islamist Faylaq al-Rahman rebel group and the Fateh al-Sham Front - known as Al-Nusra Front before it broke ties with Al-Qaeda - were present in Jobar.

"This neighbourhood is the most important front line because it's the closest rebel position to the heart of the capital," said Abdel Rahman.

Government forces have long sought to push the rebels out of the district because of its proximity to the city centre in Damascus.

But with Sunday's attack, Abdel Rahman said, "rebels have shifted from a defensive position in Jobar to an offensive one". 

"These are not intermittent clashes -- these are ongoing attempts to advance," he said. 

One rebel commander told the Associated Press news agency they launched the assualt from Jobar as a way to relieve allied fighters in the nearby districts of Barzeh, Tishreen, and Qabun from government attacks.

"This is to relieve the pressure on rebels with the regime not stopping its bombardment and artillery shelling," said Abu Abdo, a commander from Failaq al Rahman.

The attack on Damascus comes just days before a fresh round of UN-brokered peace talks in Geneva aiming to put an end to Syria's six-year war.

Rebels and government troops agreed to a nationwide cessation of hostilities in December, but fighting has continued across much of the country, including in the capital.

Rebels said the army had advanced in the last two days after weeks of bombardment and aerial strikes aimed at regaining control of strategic areas inside the capital, a few kms away from President Bashar al Assad's seat of power.

The army had advanced towards a road between Qaboun and Barza, whose capture severed the links between the two besieged rebel districts where tens of thousands of people live.

"Taking this road would isolate Barza and Qaboun completely and with a security belt around it," said Abu Abdullah, another fighter with Failaq al Rahman rebel group.

The army and its affiliated militias have been targeting the besieged Eastern Ghouta area, the biggest remaining rebel bastion around the capital, for months, making incremental gains.

It has undertaken a relentless bombing campaign of residential areas to force rebels to surrender and agree to deals that push them out of these areas.    


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