Car bomb, clashes kill over 30 near Syrian capital

Reuters

By Erika Solomon

BEIRUT, Oct 19 (Reuters) - Syrian rebels blew up an armycheckpoint outside Damascus on Saturday and more than 30combatants from both sides died in the blast and ensuingclashes, a monitoring group said.

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said15 rebels and at least 16 soldiers were killed.

The British-based Observatory said the checkpoint explosion,near the suburbs of Mleiha and Jaramana, was detonated by asuicide bomber from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front.

Nusra supporters on Twitter, however, said the bomber hadintended to blow himself up in the car, but instead got outbefore setting off the explosives inside. They said rebel forceshad captured the checkpoint hit by the car bomb and werebattling to take a second one nearby.

Syrian state television reported the blast but gave no deathtoll, saying only that several people had been killed or woundedin a "terrorist bombing".

The Observatory, which has a network of activists acrossSyria, said Syrian fighter jets retaliated by striking nearbyopposition-held areas such as Mleiha.

Video uploaded by activists showed a huge column of smokebillowing up from the scene, and the sound of fighter jetsstreaking overhead could be heard.

Rebels also fired rockets into Jaramana, a suburb held bythe government, according to the Observatory. It said the airforce carried out four strikes on adjacent rebel-held districts.

More than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria's2-1/2-year-old conflict, which began with popular protestsagainst President Bashar al-Assad before degenerating into civilwar.

The war has pitched most of the country into violencealong sectarian and ethnic lines.

In the northern province of Hassaka, a rebel suicide bomberblew himself up at a base belonging to Kurdish militants,killing at least one Kurdish fighter, the Observatory said.Kurdish groups have been fighting for autonomy from both therebels and the army.

DAMASCUS SUBURB UNDER SIEGE

In Damascus, activists said Syrian forces also tried tostorm the suburb of Mouadamiya, which the army has blockaded formonths, leading to a rising death toll from hunger andmalnutrition.

The army had advanced, but had yet to enter the suburb, saidQusair Zakariya, an activist there.

"Our rebels are fighting hard to repel the regime ... We'vebeen doing our best to try to evacuate civilians from thewestern front of the town because they're now exposed toshelling and tank fire," he said, speaking by Skype over audiblebursts of rocket fire.

Like most rebel enclaves in the suburbs that ring Damascus,Mouadamiya has been under an army-imposed siege for months,causing a particularly acute shortage of food and supplies.

Doctors in the town have reported an increasing number ofdeaths from malnutrition, especially among children.

The United States condemned the siege on Friday, saying theAssad government had only allowed a limited number of civiliansto escape from Mouadamiya and that it must allow food, water andmedicine to reach those still inside.

"We also warn the regime ... not to use limited evacuationsof civilians as an excuse to attack those residents who remainbehind," it said. "The regime's deliberate prevention of thedelivery of life-saving humanitarian supplies to thousands ofcivilians is unconscionable."

The World Health Organization said on Saturday that two suspected cases of polio had been detected in the easternprovince of Deir al-Zor, the first appearance of the incurableviral disease in Syria in 14 years.

Western powers have mostly backed opposition forces tryingto end four decades of Assad family rule, but have hesitated tosupply military aid to the rebels, fearing the rising influenceof al Qaeda. Russia and Iran have supported Assad unstintingly.

International efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria havestuttered for months, but Russia and the United States are nowplanning to hold peace talks in Geneva next month.

The deeply divided opposition remains reluctant to attend,however, and Assad's government has already said it will notconsider any deal that requires the president to step down.

The international envoy for Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, saidduring a visit to Cairo on Saturday there would be nopreconditions to attending the peace conference.

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