BEIRUT (AP) — Suicide bombers targeted Syrian troops and a hospital on Wednesday in the rugged Qalamoun hills north of Damascus, where rebels are struggling to reverse government gains that threaten to cut one of their chief supply lines, activists and officials said.
Fighting in the region has driven thousands of refugees into neighboring Lebanon, prompting authorities there to allow aid groups to build a camp for Syrians for the first time since the uprising began three years ago, a U.N. official said. It is a transit camp, not meant to be permanent.
In Damascus meanwhile, government forces arrested a leading opposition figure known for his criticism of the government of Bashar Assad but also for his condemnation of violence, activists said. There was no precise figure for casualties from the car bomb attacks in Nabak and Deir Attiyeh. The towns belong to a string of communities along a route used by rebels to bring supplies from nearby Lebanon to opposition-held enclaves outside the capital and to the central city of Homs.
A suicide car bomber targeted a checkpoint manned by Syrian soldiers while another blew up near a security headquarters. Both were on the outskirts of Nabak, said Rami Abdurrahman from the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and another activist based near the town. He said about two dozen soldiers were either killed or wounded.
In Deir Attiyeh, two suicide car bombers detonated their explosives outside a hospital, killing the guards, Syrian state television said. It said the attackers were Saudi citizens. Abdurrahman said the rebels belonged to the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. He obtains his information from a network of activists on the ground.
Fighting began in the Qalamoun hills last week, when forces loyal to Assad started an offensive against rebel-held towns there. A government victory would tighten the siege of rebel-held enclaves near Damascus, where fighters are losing ground to the army and residents suffer from chronic food shortages.
On Tuesday, Syrian forces seized the town of Qara from rebels, and activists say their next target is likely to be the nearby larger town of Yabroud, a major smuggling hub for rebels. Assad's forces have scored key battlefield wins in recent weeks. They are backed up by fighters of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, activists say.
The Iranian-backed Hezbollah's involvement has created deep tensions in Lebanon, where the country's minority groups are broadly divided between supporters and opponents of Assad's rule. On Tuesday, twin suicide bombers targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 23 people. An al-Qaida group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in response to Hezbollah and Iran's involvement in Syria.
The fighting in Qalamoun has caused over 12,000 Syrians to flee to the nearby eastern Lebanese town of Arsal over the past five days, said Lisa Abou Khaled of the U.N.'s refugee agency. She said the Lebanese government gave the U.N. permission to build the country's first transit camp for Syrians because hundreds of the latest refugees had nowhere to go. Lebanon has been reluctant to build camps to house Syrians, fearing they will stay permanently.
Arsal is crowded with Syrians. Refugees were sleeping in two wedding halls, a mosque and crowding into other slums. The town's population has doubled with refugees to around 68,000 since the Syrian crisis began, the U.N. says.
"Shelter options are exhausted," she said. Abou Khaled said the camp would accommodate 50 tents — one for each family. She said the first phase would be ready in coming days. Lebanese officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Some 1.4 million Syrians, including 800,000 registered refugees, have fled to Lebanon since Syria's conflict broke out in March 2011, overwhelming the country's infrastructure, school system and crowding out Lebanese for unskilled jobs.
Lebanon is built around a delicate sectarian balance of Muslim and Christian sects. Any influx of extra people — like mostly Sunni Syrians — can affect that balance, leading to internal strife. Also Wednesday, government forces arrested Raja al-Naser, the secretary-general of a coalition of opposition groups based in government-held territory, the organization said. The Coalition of Coordination of National Forces said al-Naser was taken while walking down a Damascus street. Syrian officials weren't available for comment.
The Syria-based opposition ranges from officials close to the government, to intellectuals and parties that have opposed Assad's Baath party for decades.