Syria conflict: Rebels launch Quneitra offensive
A rebel alliance in southern Syria has begun an offensive against government forces in Quneitra province, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
A spokesman for the Southern Front said groups fighting in the operation had signed a pact, which did not involve the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.
The area around the town of Quneitra came under heavy bombardment on Wednesday morning, Reuters reported.
Smoke could be seen rising from the area and small arms fire was heard.
Later, sirens sounded at two Israeli settlements in the Golan Heights.
Quneitra, about 70km (40 miles) south-west of the capital Damascus, has frequently seen clashes between various rebel factions and government forces since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.
'Vision for free Syria'
Southern Front spokesman Issam al-Rayes announced the start of the operation to "liberate remaining regime targets in Quneitra" late on Tuesday.
The groups taking part were all part of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and had "signed a mutual defence pact", he wrote on Twitter.
The Southern Front had "prohibited" al-Nusra from joining the operation because it did "not share the vision for a free Syria we are fighting for", he added.
The Southern Front
- In February 2014, some 50 secular and nationalist rebel factions in southern Syria formed the "Southern Front" of the Free Syrian Army, with Liwa al-Yarmouk and Liwa Falluja Hawran among the most prominent groups
- Declared it was "the moderate voice and the strong arm of the Syrian people" and that there was "no room for sectarianism and extremism in our society"
- Claimed to have 30,000 fighters in Quneitra, Deraa and Suweida provinces
- Backed with training, weaponry and logistical support by the US and its Arab allies, including neighbouring Jordan
- Co-operates on battlefield with al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra Front, which shares the goal of overthrowing President Bashar al-Assad
- Has made significant gains in Deraa province, capturing a string of towns and bases from government forces and the Nasib border crossing with Jordan
Early on Wednesday, a Reuters photographer watching from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights reported that the bombardment appeared to be focused on an area between the town of Quneitra and a nearby reservoir. He saw tanks firing shells and heard the sound of helicopters overhead.
The state news agency, Sana, reported that army units had killed a number of "terrorists" in Um Batina, east of the reservoir, and to the south of Karm Jaba.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights meanwhile reported that at least seven rebels and 10 pro-government fighters had been killed in fierce clashes between the military and rebel groups, including al-Nusra and other Islamist factions, in the north of Quneitra province since Tuesday.
The rebels had surrounded the government-held Druze town of Hadar after taking a strategic hilltop to the north, the UK-based monitoring group said.
The government has suffered a string of defeats in the past three months.
Last week, the Southern Front captured a major army base in Deraa province.
It also took the Nasib border crossing with Jordan at the start of April, days after another rebel alliance seized the capital of the north-western province of Idlib.