Syrian troops respond as rebels renew attack on Damascus

BEIRUT (AP) " Airstrikes and artillery fire shook Damascus on Tuesday as government forces tried to repel a second rebel attack on the Syrian capital in three days.

The military deployed tanks along the city's leafy Fares al-Khoury Avenue leading to the eastern Jobar and Qaboun neighborhoods, where opposition forces have been pinned for years, and the cracks of gunfire could be heard from Abbassin Square.

Government jets pounded the areas behind rebel lines, according to footage released by opposition factions, and fighters scrambled between rubble and burning buses to take up positions. Smoke clouded the skies.

Syrian state media said 15 people were wounded in rebel shelling across the capital. State-affiliated al-Ikhbariya TV said government forces had killed and wounded several "terrorists" and arrested several more.

A broad federation of insurgent factions renewed their assault on Damascus on Tuesday after their first attack launched Sunday stalled. That attack marked the most serious infiltration of the capital, seat of President Bashar Assad's power, in years.

On Tuesday, as on Sunday, the rebels detonated a car bomb in the eastern parts of the city before launching their attack.

On Sunday, the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee claimed responsibility for two car bomb explosions.

The campaign brought together a number of rival factions, including the Levant Liberation Committee, two ultraconservative factions " Ahrar al-Sham and the Islam Army " and the Free Syrian Army-affiliated Failaq al-Rahman.

Assad's armed opponents are divided over strategy, with the al-Qaida-affiliated groups preaching a confrontational, military approach against the government, and others " including the Islam Army " agreeing to political discussions.

But the government's own intransigence " ratcheting up military pressure against its opponents across the country despite peace talks in Europe and Asia " appears to have brought the factions closer together.

Mohammed Alloush, the rebels' chief negotiator with the government at technical talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, said his group, the Islam Army, was prepared to send further reinforcements to the Qaboun front in Damascus.

"Opening the Jobar front had a major effect in reducing the pressure on us and other fronts in Ghouta that have not calmed down in more than a year, and has contributed to scattering the Assad gangs," said Islam Army military spokesman Hamza Beirakdar, in a Twitter posting.

Jobar has been besieged by government forces since 2013.

The Syrian government holds authority over most of the country's population, after an overwhelming Russian intervention in 2015 turned the tide against advancing rebel forces. The government now controls the country's five largest cities.

Still, the parties to the U.N.-mediated Geneva peace process, including various rebel factions, are expected to attend the resumption of talks on Thursday, a U.N. spokeswoman said.

Alessandra Vellucci said the focus of this round will be governance, constitutional issues and elections, as well as counterterrorism, security and confidence-building measures.

Sunday's rebel blitz, spearheaded by Syria's al-Qaida branch, was the most serious insurgent incursion into Damascus since 2012.

The Levant Liberation Committee said through social media midday Tuesday it had reclaimed the points it had lost the day before. Syrian state media said the government forces had repelled the advance.

The government has been trying to pressure the rebels to surrender the pockets they hold in Damascus following victories in the northern city of Aleppo, the central city of Homs and other Damascus suburbs.

Tens of thousands of fighters, dissidents, and their family members in long-besieged areas have accepted exile to the country's rebel-held northwest, in what opposition figures have termed "forced displacement."

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Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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