BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops launched a counteroffensive Saturday in an attempt to regain a border crossing point with Turkey a day after it fell in the hands of rebels led by members of an al-Qaida-linked group, activists and state media said.
The rebel capture of the Kassab crossing point in the coastal province of Latakia comes after weeks of government gains to the south along the border with Lebanon. Although the government has had the initiative on the battlefield for most of last year, rebels on Friday opened an offensive in the province of Latakia, the ancestral home of President Bashar Assad's family and a stronghold of his Alawite sect.
Rami Abdurrahman who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said opposition fighters led by members of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front are in control of the crossing point "but have been targeted by regime forces since yesterday." The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has reporters throughout Syria, said Syrian warplanes carried out several air raids in the Kassab area.
State-run news agency SANA said Syrian troops are on the offensive in the area and killed several opposition fighters including a Saudi citizen whom it said was the leader of the Ansar al-Sham faction. It said a local leader of the Nusra Front also died in the fighting.
A jihadi website confirmed that a Saudi militant was killed Friday in the offensive in Latakia identifying him as Abdul-Mohsen Abdullah Ibrahim al-Sharekh, also known as Sanafi al-Nasr. It said he was the 49th on Saudi Arabia's list of 85 most wanted terror suspects issued in early 2010.
An activist in northwestern Syria who goes by the name of Abu Mohammed Haffawi told The Associated Press that the rebel offensive on Saturday is concentrating on a strategic hill known as Observatory 45 that overlooks wide areas. He said whenever the rebels capture this hill it will be easier for them to storm nearby villages.
He added that rebels are still in control of the Kassab border point while the government holds the main nearby town that carries the same name and has a large Armenian community. Syria's uprising, which began with largely peace protests in March 2011, has evolved into a civil war with sectarian overtones that has left more than 140,000 people dead.
Islamic extremists, including both foreign fighters and Syrians who have taken up hard-line al-Qaida-style ideologies, have played an increasingly prominent role among fighters, dampening the West's support for the rebellion to overthrow Assad.
Elsewhere, the Observatory and the Aleppo media center reported that rebels captured the strategic Shweihneh mountain in the northern province of Aleppo after intense clashes. AMC said 50 government soldiers were killed in the fighting while the Observatory said 21 soldiers and 18 rebels perished.
Earlier Saturday, Syrian state media say government forces ambushed a group of rebels who crossed into the country from neighboring Jordan and killed several of the fighters. SANA news agency said the rebels were members of the Nusra Front. It said they were attacked near the town of Adra, northeast of Damascus, and that most of the rebels died in the ambush. The report says their weapons were seized.
Opposition activists also reported a government attack on rebels in Adra. The Observatory for Human Rights said the ambush occurred late Friday and that at least 10 people were killed.
Associated Press writer Maamoun Youssef contributed to this report from Cairo.