BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops intensified their bombardment of opposition-held areas around Damascus on Monday and besieged a rebel neighborhood northeast of the city, the latest in the government's push to erase battlefield advances made by insurgents in March.
Airstrikes on the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma killed at least 16 people, including three children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Douma-based activist Mazen al-Shami said 16 people were killed in Douma, including a whole family. He gave no further details.
The government's siege of the Barzeh neighborhood came as President Bashar Assad's forces work to expand their security belt around Damascus, his seat of power.
After hours of fighting under the cover of airstrikes and intense bombardment, government forces and their allies captured Hafez Road, according to the Observatory and opposition activist Anas al-Dimashqi, who is based near Damascus.
The capture of the road cut off Barzeh from the Qaboun and Tishrin neighborhoods, which are partially held by the rebels.
Monday's developments will increase pressure on opposition fighters who have suffered major defeats in recent months, including the loss of eastern neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, and the western Damascus suburb of Wadi Barada, a main source of water for the capital, earlier this year.
In March, insurgents launched a counter-attack, capturing several areas northeast of Damascus before losing much of them over the past few days.
Assad's forces are seeking to capture rebel-held parts of Qaboun, Tishrin, Jobar and Barzeh — areas that opposition fighters have held for years. Losing them would deal a new blow to the opposition.
The Hafez road represents a strategic artery, though the rebels have been widely known to use tunnels in the nearby neighborhoods to smuggle fighters, weapons and food.
Earlier on Monday, Syrian government forces stepped up the bombing of opposition-held areas in and near Damascus and the central city of Hama.
"There's been a major escalation north of Hama in the directions of Maardes and Souran," said a local media activist who goes by the name of Obeida Hamawi fearing for his own safety. He estimated more than 70 bombs and rockets had fallen on the adjoining village and town.
Syrian state media said government forces had reclaimed Maardes by midday. Hamawi said local fighters were expecting the government to make a push for the larger Souran as early as Tuesday.
Syrian rebels and al-Qaida-linked fighters seized the towns in a surprise offensive two weeks ago. They reached within 10 kilometers (6 miles) of Hama, Syria's fourth-largest city, before government forces and allied militias stopped the advance.
The Syrian government depends on Shiite fighting forces from Lebanon, Iraq and Iran to fortify its positions. Hamawi said these forces have been instrumental in the government's counter-offensive in Hama. Pro-government Twitter accounts recorded the arrival of Iraqi reinforcements belonging to the Nujaba Movement to the area last week.
Earlier, the Observatory said pro-government forces carried out at least 50 airstrikes on opposition-held zones around Damascus by midday,
Thick smoke clouded the skies in the capital's Qaboun neighborhood and the Jisreen and Saqba suburbs, according to footage from the activist-run Qasioun and Step News Agencies. The activist-run Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, also known as the White Helmets, reported that they evacuated a number of wounded residents to hospitals from Hamouriyeh following presumed government or Russian airstrikes on the suburb.
Two weeks ago, at least 16 people were killed in an airstrike on the suburb's main road.
Also on Monday, Turkey's president said new operations against "terrorist organizations" are being planned now that the military operation in northern Syria had completed its "first stage."
Speaking at a rally in the northwestern city of Trabzon, Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Operation Euphrates Shield — which began in August — was over after Turkey and its allies secured the town of al-Bab.
"Now we are planning new operations to crush terrorist organizations in other regions," he said, adding that the operations will be given new names.
Listing Syrian and Turkish Kurdish groups known as the PKK and YPG as well as the Islamic State group, and FETO, the movement Ankara claims is responsible for last year's failed coup, Erdogan added that Turkey had "very nice surprises" planned for the terrorist organizations. He didn't elaborate.
Associated Press writer Cinar Kiper in Istanbul contributed to this report.