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May 30, 2017

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Syrian government retakes Damascus areas captured by rebels

BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces on Monday regained control of parts of Damascus that were attacked and captured by rebels and militants the previous day, with the two-day fighting leaving dozens dead on both sides, the military and an activist group said.

The sudden rebel seizure of territory in the Syrian capital — and the manner in which the attack that took place overnight and into Sunday, with rebels sneaking into the city through underground tunnels and using car bombs — reflected the insurgents' most serious infiltration into Damascus in years.

The Levant Liberation Committee, a coalition of several militant groups led by al-Qaida's branch in Syria, and the independent Failaq al-Rahman faction spearheaded the blitz that caught the Syrian military off guard.

Insurgent groups have repeatedly over the past years tried to break the defenses of Damascus, President Bashar Assad's seat of power. Sunday's incursion, however, was the most serious since 2012, when rebels captured several Damascus neighborhoods before being crushed by government forces.

The rebel gains, though short-lived, came against the backdrop of months of steady losses at the hands of government forces across the country.

Sunday's fighting centered on a government-held intersection of two besieged opposition enclaves, the Jobar and Qaboun neighborhoods. The ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham rebel faction said opposition fighters had "liberated" the area.

Syrian TV on Monday quoted an unnamed military official as saying the army "regained control of all the points that terrorists" had infiltrated on Sunday. It also quoted Russia's ambassador to Damascus Alexander Kinshchak as saying one of the embassy's buildings was hit with a shell during the clashes.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said the Syrian air force carried out more than 25 airstrikes on Jobar and nearby areas.

Lebanon's Al-Manar TV run by the militant Hezbollah group, which is fighting along Assad's forces, reported that members of the elite Republican Guards took part in a counteroffensive against insurgents. The TV reported live from Jobar around noontime Monday as cracks of gunfire and explosions could be heard in the background of the footage.

The activist Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that in all, 26 soldiers and pro-government gunmen were killed as well as 21 rebels. The Observatory said fighting was still underway Monday.

The government has been trying to pressure the rebels to surrender the pockets they hold in Damascus, following victories in the northern city of Aleppo, the central city of Homs and other Damascus suburbs.

Also Monday, Syrian state TV and the Observatory reported that an airstrike in the country's north — said to be by the U.S.-led coalition, which has been targeting the Islamic State group in Syria for more than two years — had left at least seven people dead, including five members of the same family.

The Observatory said the strike took place on Sunday in the village of Shabhar in Raqqa province. Another activist group, the anti-IS organization called "Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently" listed the five members of the al-Matar family killed in the attack.

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