BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels launched a wide-ranging offensive against government positions near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday, after shelling in and around Damascus killed at least 33 people, activists said.
The rebels of the Southern Front alliance and the so-called Haramoun Army targeted several areas in the Golan, including the towns and villages of Quneitra, Khan Arnabeh, Baath, Jiba and the base of Brigade 90, the main government force in the region, said opposition activist Jamal al-Jolani, who is based in southern Syria.
"The fighting now is inside the city of Quneitra," al-Jolani said via Skype. He said the Haramoun Army — which includes al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham — shelled the area while Southern Front fighters advanced on the ground.
Insurgents have been on the offensive in southern Syria for the past three months, capturing military bases, villages and a border crossing point with Jordan.
Maj. Issam el Rayyes, a spokesman for the Southern Front, said the aim of the offensive "is to liberate remaining regime targets in Quneitra." He added that they aim to link southern Syria with rebel-held neighborhoods in the suburbs of Assad's seat of power in the capital, Damascus.
"This is a wide battle, not a simple one," he said, adding that in addition to the towns and village in Quneitra, the rebels are fighting to control a series of strategic hills in the southern region.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting Wednesday killed a soldier and one insurgent, after six rebels were killed the day before.
Explosions from the fighting could be seen from the Israel-controlled Golan Heights several miles (kilometers) away. A Syrian government helicopter could be heard dropping bombs on rebel targets as tanks, believed to belong to the rebels, fired back. An Israeli warplane flew along the frontier as a precautionary move.
Just before noon, warning sirens sounded in the Israeli-occupied Golan, near the Quneitra border crossing. Shelling and gunfire from Syria's civil war occasionally has strayed across the frontier, but there were no immediate reports of any spillover Wednesday. The Golan is a popular destination for tourists, some of whom stopped to watch the fighting in the distance.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency meanwhile said two shells struck Arnous Park in Damascus late Tuesday, killing nine people and wounding 13 as shoppers were out ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Thursday.
Government forces earlier fired Iranian-made "elephant" rockets on the rebel-held suburb of Douma, killing 24 people, including five children and 14 women, according to the Observatory.
The shelling in Damascus and Douma occurred as U.N. special envoy Staffan de Mistura was still in the Syrian capital. On Wednesday, he ended a three-day visit to Syria, during which he met Assad and other officials.
"The special envoy stresses that the heavy bombings by government forces last night on Douma, which caused significant civilian casualties, calls for a strong condemnation," a U.N. statement issued at the end of his visit said. "No context justifies the indiscriminate targeting of civilian areas or the use of collective punishment by a government."
The statement also condemned rebel bombing of government neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo that killed and wounded dozens this week.
Insurgents on the outskirts of Damascus occasionally shell the capital, drawing massive retaliation from government forces, which have reduced several rebel-held suburbs to rubble.
Associated Press writers Ariel Schalit in Merom Golan in the Golan Heights and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.