BEIRUT – Syrian army troops killed 175 rebels in an ambush Wednesday south of Damascus, state media reported, a major attack targeting mostly al-Qaida-linked fighters as part of a government effort to secure the capital.
The dawn attack by President Bashar Assad’s forces in the opposition-held area of eastern Ghouta likely will push rebel groups against his rule further away from Damascus, his seat of power. The capital’s suburbs have been opposition strongholds since March 2011, when the revolt against the ruling family began.
If confirmed, it would be one of the deadliest attacks by government forces against rebels in the area.
Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a field commander in the eastern Ghouta area saying most of rebels killed in the assault near Oteibah lake southeast of Damascus belonged to the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front rebel group. The report said several of those killed were foreign fighters who came to Syria from Saudi Arabia, Chechnya and Qatar to fight.
SANA said the army’s operation dealt “a smashing blow to terrorists,” a term Syrian state media uses for rebels.
SANA posted several photographs on its website showing dozens of bodies of men lying in a dirt track of an open field, some wearing fatigues, but most wearing civilian clothes. Some appeared to have been carrying bags of clothes and bottles of water which were scattered on the ground, suggesting they were moving locations when they were ambushed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported the killings, saying that 70 rebels were killed in Wednesday’s assault.
The Observatory, which has been documenting Syria’s nearly 3-year-old conflict by relying on activists’ reports on the ground, says the number of those killed likely will rise because 89 rebels have been reported missing.
In a live broadcast from the area, Lebanon-based television station Al-Mayadeen also showed dozens of bodies scattered along an unpaved road.
An army colonel told Al-Mayadeen that his troops acted on intelligence and the rebels lost “more than 150 men” in the assault. Syrian army tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in the broadcast as were soldiers patrolling on foot.
Syria’s conflict started as largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule in March 2011. It has gradually turned into a civil war that has taken increasingly sectarian overtones, pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad’s government that is dominated by Alawites, a sect in Shiite Islam.
More than 140,000 people have been killed, activists say.