DAMASCUS, SyriaHeavy clashes between President Bashar Assad's forces and rebels broke out Sunday on the edge of the Syrian capital, where the government has been pushing its offensive to retake key districts that have been in opposition hands for months.
The Syrian military has seized the momentum in the nation's civil war over the past three months, wresting back territory lost to rebel forces and solidifying its hold on contested areas, particularly on the fringes of Damascus. Two of those embattled districts in the capital are Jobar and Qaboun, from which anti-Assad forces frequently launch mortar rounds on the heart of the capital.
A Syrian government official said forces loyal to Assad have recaptured 60 percent of Jobar, just south of Qaboun, and were trying to recover the remainder of the area. The remarks, made to reporters Sunday during a military escorted tour of Jobar organized by the Information Ministry, could not be independently verified.
But an Associated Press reporter on the tour saw massive destruction that pointed to heavy fighting in the neighborhood: entire factories that manufactured marble tiles had been razed to the ground, and reporters walked through the devastated area via holes knocked in walls amid warnings of opposition snipers in the area.
At least two bodies, apparently those of gunmen, were lying on the floor of a bunker described by the official as a "terrorist" hideout. He declined to be named, saying he was not allowed to make press statements.
Assad's government describes the rebels fighting to overthrow him as terrorists playing out a foreign conspiracy hatched by Israel, the United States and some of its Arab allies in the region, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
During the tour of Jobar, reporters were taken to a hideout the army said it seized a day earlier after killing 30 rebels and their leader inside. Reporters were shown RPG mortar rounds and explosive devices as well as an alleged chemical material with a strong odor.
Arabic graffiti on the walls read: "The al-Tawhid Brigade," and "the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" names of militant groups fighting to topple Assad.
Sunday's tour came as Syria's main Western-backed opposition group claimed that 200 civilians were trapped in a mosque in Qaboun, near Jobar, as fighting raged outside between rebels and Assad's army. It warned that thousands of civilians in Qaboun could be "massacred" by Assad's army, as armored vehicles and elite forces move into the neighborhood.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground, said dozens of people were held captive Saturday by regime forces in the basement of the al-Omari Mosque, but were able to escape when clashes broke out between rebel and regime forces in the perimeter of the mosque, leading troops to retreat.
In Washington, U.S. officials said Israel targeted advanced anti-ship cruise missiles near Syria's principal port city in an airstrike earlier this month, according to a report by The New York Times. It cited the officials as saying the attack on July 5 near Latakia targeted a type of Russian-made missile called the Yakhont that Russia had sold to the Syrian government.
There was no immediate comment from Assad's government, whose key political ally and arms supplier is Russia. Israeli officials did not comment on the report.