Syrian Military Mounts Offensive in Suburb of Damascus

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BEIRUT, Lebanon -- Syria's military was mounting what opposition activists said was the largest incursion in months on a rebellious suburb of Damascus on Monday, in an effort to drive back rebel forces that have taken up positions within miles of the center of the capital.

At least three people were killed in the fighting in the suburb, Daraya, southwest of Damascus, which was a focal point for the protest movement early in the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, and later became a stronghold for fighters trying to topple his government. In one of the deadliest episodes of the war, hundreds of people, including many civilians, were killed in August when the military stormed Daraya in what it called a "cleansing" operation using troops and attack helicopters.

Attempts by rebel fighters to control territory around the capital has turned a ring of suburbs into a deadly cat and mouse game, as the army pounds residential neighborhoods with artillery and rockets to vanquish fighters who often retreat to the countryside and then return.

On Monday, the Syrian state news agency, SANA, said that the military was "continuing to clear the city of Daraya in the Damascus countryside" and that it had "destroyed a terrorist base and killed huge numbers of terrorists," without providing more detail. Opposition groups reported that between three and nine people were killed by government shelling.

An opposition activist in Daraya who gave his name as Ismail said fighting in the town -- all but emptied after previous government attacks -- had been going on for weeks. On Sunday, government forces cut off a highway into the town, stopping civilian cars that tried to enter. Heavy shelling started around 9 a.m. on Monday, Ismail said, as a large military convoy that included tanks appeared on the town's outskirts.

The shelling could be heard in the background as he spoke over Skype. "The regime forces are fighting fiercely to control Daraya," he said. "It's just a few kilometers to the presidential palace."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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