Damascus clashes rage as troops take central town

Syrian regime troops took control of the central town of Karnaz on Thursday after 16 days of clashes with rebels, a watchdog said, also reporting three children among six killed in bombing of Damascus.

"[Rebel] fighters withdrew from Karnaz, which they seized in December last year, after heavy fighting and regular forces regained control," Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP by phone.

"Government troops seized nearby Mughir two days ago. This village is the gateway to Alawite villages in the west of Hama province," he said, referring to the minority religious community of President Bashar al-Assad.

Located about halfway along a highway linking Damascus to Aleppo in the north, Hama province is home to a mixed population of Alawites as well as Sunni Muslims and Christians.

The regime is determined to keep control of it and surrounding areas to hold at bay the rebels, who control large swathes of territory in the countryside.

In the northern province of Aleppo, six rebels were killed in combat with government troops near the Menegh military airbase and in the provincial capital.

In Damascus, six civilians including three under the age of 18 were killed by mortars that landed on a bus garage in the northeastern district of Qaboon, as rebel bastions throughout the capital were rocked by fighting and bombing for a second straight day, the Observatory said.

The watchdog and a security official had on Wednesday reported the launch of a fierce regime offensive on rebel belts on the outskirts of Damascus, which killed 64 people on its first day.

Pro-regime daily Al-Watan said "the army is determined to crush terrorism around the capital and big cities, and has launched a special operation and killed dozens of terrorists who dreamt of attacking and entering Damascus."

The Britain-based Observatory meanwhile reported regime shelling on areas along a southern highway of the capital as clashes broke out in the area.

"Rebels attacked an army checkpoint overlooking the highway and now there are fierce clashes there," Marwan, an employee at a restaurant in the southern Midan district, told AFP by phone.

The army also bombarded the outlying northeastern town of Harasta, as fighting erupted at a military vehicle depot nearby, the Observatory said, also reporting the arrival of army reinforcements in the embattled southwestern suburb of Daraya.

These areas of Damascus are among the strongest bastions of the rebellion against the Assad regime, which is battling to suppress a nearly two year revolt the UN says has left more than 60,000 people dead.

Government troops seized nearby Mughir two days ago. This village is the gateway to Alawite villages in the west of Hama province.