MISHERFEH, Syria (AP) — Syrian forces on Thursday bombarded rebel positions with artillery and warplanes in the Mediterranean coastal province of Latakia, trying to push back opposition fighters who over the past week made rare territorial gains in President Bashar Assad's ancestral heartland.
Government troops have been battling for days with the rebels from several Islamic groups, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, that launched the offensive in the province a week ago. They seized a number of towns, a border crossing with Turkey and — for the first time in the 3-year-old conflict — a tiny stretch of coast giving the rebels an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea.
Fierce clashes were ongoing Thursday as the army tried to wrestle back the predominantly Christian Armenian town of Kassab and nearby village of Nabaain, both seized by the rebels.
Artillery aimed at rebels in Kassab echoed across the area at the rate of one every two minutes, according to an Associated Press reporter in Misherfeh, a village nestled at the foothills of mountains overlooking Kassab.
A field commander speaking to reporters in Misherfeh said the army was making progress against the fighters.
"The army and the National Defense Forces are moving toward Kassab from Nabaan and Qastal Maaf," said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Latakia, a mountainous and wooded region, is the heartland of Assad's Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam that is a minority in Syria but is a major pillar of Assad's rule. Sunni Muslims dominate the rebel ranks fighting to oust Assad.
Government aircraft dropped several barrel bombs on a hilltop area known as Observatory 45, also seized by rebels several days ago, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that follows the conflict through activists on the ground. The Local Coordination Committees, a Syria-based opposition group that also documents the conflict, reported two government airstrikes on the strategic post.
The post is key because it has a commanding view of the contested surrounding mountains and green plains below.
The rebel push into Latakia appeared to have caught Assad's forces off guard. It came as the military was celebrating major gains near the border with Lebanon and around the capital Damascus. The military rushed in fighters from a pro-government militia and warplanes to bolster troops in the counter-offensive.
Over the past month, Assad's forces, backed by his allies from the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group, have captured a series of rebel-held towns and villages along Syria's border with Lebanon, squeezing the flow of rebel fighters, weapons and supplies across the frontier.
Tens of thousands of Syrians fled into Lebanon since the government offensive in the Qalamoun region in Syria began in November. Most of them live in makeshift refugee settlements in the hills around the Lebanese town of Arsal, which has served as a major logistical base for the rebels.
On Thursday, Syrian warplanes struck inside Lebanon in a mountainous area near Arasal, injuring five people, Lebanon's official National News Agency said. Syrian planes have hit several times in the same area in Lebanon since the Qalamoun offensive began.
Later in the day, the Lebanese army said that troops in Arasal shot Sami Atrach, whom it said was wanted for rigging cars with explosives, firing rockets into Lebanese border towns and shooting at soldiers. It said he later died from his injuries.
Over the past several months, car bombs and rockets launched from Syria have struck predominantly Shiite areas around Lebanon, killing and wounding scores of people.
Fighting in Syria along the Lebanon border has subsided in recent days after the fall of the last rebel stronghold in the area, Yabroud. But on Thursday, rebels and Hezbollah-backed government troops clashed near another border town, Flita, the Observatory and LCC reported. They said a high ranking rebel commander and his deputy were killed in the fighting.
In Homs, Syria's official news service said a correspondent for a pro-government TV station was injured while on assignment there. SANA news agency said Nibal Ibrahim, a correspondent for Al-Ikhbariya TV was shot in the leg while filming an underground tunnel used by rebels in the central city. SANA said terrorists were behind the attack on Ibrahim, a term officials use for rebels.
Also in Homs, a car bomb exploded in the city, killing one person and wounding 11 others, state news agency SANA said. The Observatory said the explosion went off in the Arman neighborhood that is predominantly Alawite.
Surk reported from Beirut.