BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian airstrikes killed at least seven people in a suburb of Damascus on Friday, as government troops battled rebels in several districts along the eastern edge of the capital, activists said.
President Bashar Assad's forces have been seeking for months to solidify its hold on Damascus by dislodging rebels from the towns and neighborhoods on the city's fringes. The government has used twin tactics to achieve its aims: blockading rebellious areas to pressure them into submission and unleashing artillery and airstrikes on districts that refuse to bend.
One town that has held out is Mleiha, located just east of the capital in a largely agricultural area known as Eastern Ghouta. Early Friday, a series of government air raids targeted the town, killing at least seven people, said Ammar al-Hassan, an activist based near Mleiha.
"There are very fierce clashes today and the bombardment is very intense," al-Hassan said by Skype.
He said the government is focusing on Mleiha because of its location along the main road that links Damascus with Eastern Ghouta, which has long been a predominantly rebel-controlled area.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported heavy fighting and airstrikes on Mleiha and the nearby Damascus district of Jobar. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said at least 26 rebels were killed in the clashes since Thursday.
Part of the government's desire to flush rebels from outlying areas of the capital is to prevent the opposition fighters from lobbing mortar rounds into neighborhoods of the capital.
The state news agency SANA said five mortar shells slammed into Damascus' predominantly Christian Bab Touma neighborhood Friday, wounding 22 people.
In the northwestern province of Idlib, Islamic rebel factions seized control of the town of Baboline and the village of Salihya, the Observatory said. At least 18 government troops were killed in the fighting, according to the activist group.
The two communities lie near Syria's main north-south highway, most of which has been highly contested since 2012.
Also Friday, the international mission to rid Syria of its chemical weapons said in a statement that a 12th batch of chemicals had been removed from the country.
The joint operation by the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has already supervised the removal or destruction of more than 53 percent of Syria's stockpile of chemicals.
OPCW Director-General Ahmet Uzumcu noted that the latest shipment is the first since March 20, and stressed that Syria should "not only to follow this up with further rapid movements but also to make up for the lost time by increasing the volumes of chemicals to be removed."
Syria's government already has missed several deadlines. It has blamed the delays on security concerns and the lack of some equipment, but has repeated that it remains fully committed to the process. It has pledged to remove all chemicals by April 13, except for those in areas that are presently inaccessible, which face an April 27 deadline, according to an OPCW report released last month.
The international mission to rid Syria of its chemical arsenal arose after a chemical attack near Damascus last August that killed hundreds of people. The U.S. and its allies blamed the Syrian government for the attack; Damascus denies the charges, and has accused the rebels of staging the incident.