Middle East

Dozens of Syrian rebels die in government ambush

Image from Syrian state media showing forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Qalamoun mountains north of Damascus
Image caption Syrian state media distributed photos of the operation in the Qalamoun mountains

Dozens of Islamist rebels have been killed by a Syrian army ambush in a strategic area near the capital Damascus.

Activists and state media say the attack took place on Friday morning to the north of the town of Maaloula.

State media said the men were linked to the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.

The region lies next to key roads linking Damascus with the north of the country and has been the scene of fierce fighting in recent months.

The state-run Sana news agency said that an army unit had "ambushed terrorists, killing dozens of them and seizing their criminal tools".

Pictures displayed on state media showed many bodies.

The UK-based activist group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that around 20 rebels had also been injured in Friday's attack.

SOHR also said that the rebels targeted in the attack belonged to Islamist brigades.

While the initial character of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 was not sectarian, Islamist groups have emerged as having the best training and equipment and are now at the forefront of fighting the government.

Mr Assad belongs to Syria's Alawite minority, while the majority Sunni population has largely thrown its weight behind the uprising against him.

SOHR also reported on Friday that government warplanes had struck two other towns close to the Lebanese border, Bukain and Madaya, resulting in several injuries.

Earlier this month, Syrian government forces were reported to have taken control of the motorway linking Damascus with the city of Homs.

The road has been closed for several weeks because of heavy fighting with rebels in the Qalamoun mountains, which run along the border with Lebanon, and where Friday's ambush took place.