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Syria

Fighting in Damascus as Syrian army aims to retake rebel areas

Heavy fighting has been reported in two districts of the Syrian capital. Government forces have been trying to retake two areas which have been in rebel hands for months.

The neighboring districts of Jobar and Qaboun on the east and northeast edges of Damascus are the areas under dispute. A Syrian government official claimed that forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had recaptured 60 percent of Jobar, which lies just south of Qaboun.

On Sunday, the Information Ministry organized a tour of Jobar for reporters. The Associated Press reported on widescale destruction that pointed to heavy fighting in the district. Entire factories that manufactured marble tiles had been razed to the ground, with holes knocked in walls. The military officers on the tour warned reporters of opposition snipers in the area.

Separately, opposition groups claimed that 200 civilians were trapped in the basement of a mosque in the neighboring district of Qaboun as fighting continued outside. "There is a siege because regime snipers are posted on the outskirts of Qaboun and this makes any attempt to leave difficult," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based anti-government rights group, said on Sunday.

"Violent clashes are under way between regime forces and rebels in Qaboun," the Observatory announced. "The area has also been bombed by the army," it reported.

The opposition Syrian Coalition called on the United Nations to send "a strong warning" to al-Assad that he "must immediately release" the civilians trapped in the Qaboun mosque.

Israel strike

Meanwhile, The New York Times has reported that Israel had targeted Russian-made missiles near Syria's principal port city of Latakia in an airstrike on July 5.

Speaking on "Face the Nation," on the American television network CBS on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to confirm or deny Israeli involvement. He said Israel's policy "is to prevent the transfer of dangerous weapons to Hezbollah and other terror groups."

Also on Sunday, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that Didier Francois and Edouard Elias, French journalists who were kidnapped in Syria in June, were alive.

Speaking later in a live interview on France 2 and TF1 television, President Francois Hollande said, "We're doing everything to find where they are, to know exactly the intentions of their captors."

jm/ccp (AP, AFP)