DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian elite forces backed by Hezbollah fighters besieged a rebel-held mountain resort near the border with Lebanon on Saturday under the cover of intense airstrikes by Syria's air forces, activists and official media outlets reported.
The capture of Zabadani would tighten Hezbollah's grip on Syrian territories bordering Lebanon and strengthen the Syrian government's control over of the Beirut-Damascus highway.
Zabadani has been held by rebels since shortly after Syria's crisis began in March 2011. The conflict has killed more than 220,000 people and wounded at least a million, according to the United Nations.
In what appeared to be retaliation for the Zabadani offensive, rebels shelled Damascus, striking several neighborhoods including the central Baghdad Street district. Another shell hit Damascus' famous Dama Rose hotel, previously Le Meridien, near the posh neighborhood of Abu Rummaneh. Some of the hotel's windows were shattered.
The Syrian state news agency reported that one person was killed and two wounded.
Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV aired footage from the battlefield showing smoke billowing from much of Zabadani as shells and missiles struck the town.
Al-Manar said Hezbollah's fighters and Syrian troops were attacking from several directions and by afternoon had captured Tal castle, which overlooks wide parts of the town. The rebels were retreating, the station said.
Syrian state TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that "terrorists suffered large losses."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government's air forces conducted 15 airstrikes on Saturday morning. It said the attack, which killed at least two opposition fighters, was being conducted by Hezbollah and Syria's elite 4th Division.
Syrian troops and Hezbollah intensely bombarded Zabadani on Friday. The Observatory said the resort was subjected to more than 90 airstrikes on Friday alone.
In the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters tried but failed to retake the Scientific Research Center, which was being used as an army base, the Observatory said.
The center was captured by insurgents late Friday, according to the Observatory and the Aleppo Media Center, an activist collective.
On Friday, Islamic militants and rebels launched fresh attacks on government-held neighborhoods in Aleppo, setting off some of the heaviest fighting in months in the contested city that was once Syria's commercial center.
Saturday's offensive came a day after a bombing at a mosque where al-Qaida's branch in Syria was holding a fast-breaking meal, killing at least 14, activists said.
The activists said the bombing inside the Salem Mosque in the northwestern town of Ariha occurred shortly after sunset Friday when scores of Nusra Front members gathered to break their fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The Observatory reported Saturday that the explosion killed 31 Nusra Front members including five commanders.
Syria-based activist Ahmad al-Ahmad said 15 Nusra Front fighters were killed and more than 30 wounded. He said the Nusra Front commander in Idlib province, Abu Abdullah al-Tunisi, was either wounded or killed.
Nusra Front cordoned off the area and the casualty numbers could not be confirmed.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack although activists said President Bashar Assad's government might have been behind it. Ariha was a government stronghold until it was captured by the Nusra Front and its allies in May.
Mroue reported from Beirut.