BEIRUT (AP) — Clashes between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters killed 14 rebels overnight along a strategic corridor between Damascus and the Lebanese border, activists said Thursday.
The fighting in Zabadani — a town near Damascus and the last rebel stronghold in the area — is part of the larger battle for control of the mountainous Qalamoun region, stretching from the Syrian capital to the border with Lebanon.
President Bashar Assad's forces, backed by Lebanese militant Hezbollah fighters, launched an offensive in Qalamoun in mid-November, ousting rebels from the area and cutting their supply routes from Lebanon.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which gathers reports from opposition activists on the ground, the latest bout of clashes killed 14 rebels and an unknown number of soldiers. The Syrian government does not publicize its casualty figures in the 3-year-old conflict.
Another activist group, the Syria-based Local Coordination Committees, said government aircraft dropped four crude bombs on Zabadani overnight.
Rebels in the area have been firing mortars into the capital, the seat of Assad's government. While mortar attacks have subsided since the fall of two opposition strongholds in Qalamoun, rebels are still able to strike the heart of the capital and other cities.
Syrian state news agency SANA said two teachers were wounded Thursday when mortar shells exploded near a school in the central Damascus district of Qanawat. Earlier this week, a double car bombing in the central city of Homs and a mortar strike in Damascus killed at least 54 people.
Also Thursday, activists said that the death toll from a government airstrike that hit a school in the northern city of Aleppo the previous day rose to 20, including 17 children. The attack took place as teachers and students were preparing an exhibit of children's drawings depicting Syria at war, activists said. The local Aleppo Media Center put the toll at 25 killed, most of them children.
Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has been divided between government forces and rebels for nearly two years, with constant fighting doing little to change the balance on the ground. Assad's forces have been carrying out airstrikes and dropping crude barrel bombs in rebel-held districts in the eastern part of the city, at times hitting schools, mosques and markets.
Thousands of Syrian children have been killed in the country's bloody conflict, which began as protests against Assad's rule in March 2011. The revolt became an armed uprising after some opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown. It turned into a civil war, which activists say has killed more than 150,000 people and displaced millions.
In Damascus, seven more Syrians — none publicly known — submitted bids to run in the June 3 presidential elections, bringing the number of contenders so far to 24, Parliament Speaker Jihad Laham said Thursday.
The registration for presidential bids is now closed. Under the new election law, each candidate has to be endorsed by 35 lawmakers for a bid to become official. The provision would limit the number of final candidates in the race since each lawmaker in the 245-seat parliament can only endorse one candidate.
Opposition activists and Western countries have condemned the elections as a sham. Assad is widely expected to win his third seven-year term since he succeeded his father, Hafez, in 2000.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.