Syrian army units ambush and kill rebels near Damascus

BEIRUT — Syrian army units ambushed and killed a group of opposition fighters near Damascus, the capital, state media reported Saturday, saying that the group had crossed into the country from neighboring Jordan.

The rebels, which Syria’s state-run news agency said were attached to Islamist factions including the Islamic Front and Al Qaeda-linked Al Nusra Front, were monitored as they crossed the Syria-Jordan border before being engaged by army units in the city of Adra, 11 miles northeast of Damascus. Some activists said the army units killed 12 people, including two civilians and members of the West-supported Free Syrian Army.

“A unit of our armed forces destroyed an armed terrorist group from the Nusrah Front that had snuck in through the Jordanian border in an ambush,” the news agency said. The government of President Bashar Assad routinely dubs the opposition fighters as “terrorists.”

Casualty figures could not be independently verified. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition group, confirmed the attack.

Adra, an industrial city that lies on a vital highway linking Damascus to the central province of Homs, had a population of 50,000 before the Syrian civil war. In December, it was the site of a sectarian massacre perpetrated by Al Nusra Front that targeted Alawites, members of a religious sect, of which Assad is a member,  that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Government forces besieged the city, taking it back in late December.

Elsewhere, rebels mounted an attack to wrest control of one of the few official border crossings on the Syrian-Turkish border to have remained in government hands.

Battles continued near the city of Kasab, about five miles from the Mediterranean, as government forces struggled to rout rebels eager to open a supply lane to the coast. Pro-government activists reported significant government troop movements from the city of Tartus toward the city.

Syria's delegate to the United Nations, Bashar Jaafari, accused Turkey of supporting the attackers. “The Turkish army covered this terrorist attack and provided logistic and military support for it,” he stated in a letter Saturday to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Kasab lies 23 miles to the north of Latakia province, the government's main stronghold on the Mediterranean. It also has a significant Alawite population and is the ancestral home of the Assad family.

The three-year-long Syrian civil war began as a series of anti-government protests that soon escalated into a war that has devastated the country, with more than 100,000 people dead, according to the U.N., and millions displaced. It has also sharpened the divide among Syria's many sects, as Islamist groups dominated the rebels' ranks, including the Al Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

The group espouses a harsh ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic law. In its stronghold city of Raqqa, members on Saturday crucified a man accused in a killed. Images posted on social media showed men taking cellphone pictures of a bloodied man on a rudimentary cross in the city's central square.

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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