JNN 25 June 2013 Damascus : Syrian troops backed by Lebanese Hezbollah resistance fighters clashed on Wednesday with foreign-backed militants south of a Damascus suburb that is home to a major Muslim shrine, in an attempt to secure the area surrounding the revered site, activists said.
State TV said government forces were able to clear rebels out of one neighborhood, al-Bahdaliya, outside the suburb of Sayida Zeinab, home to the ornate, gold-domed shrine of Sayida Zeinab, the Prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, The Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, rebel forces claimed they took control of a hospital in a village south of the shrine neighborhood, from which they were battling government forces and allied militias.
Insurgents control several suburbs of the capital, trying to threaten the heart of the city, seat of President Bashar al-Assad’s power. But the government has largely been able to keep them at bay.
The area surrounding the Sayida Zeinab suburb, about 16 kilometers (10 miles) south of Damascus, has seen fighting before. But the government forces and Hezbollah fighters launched an intensified assault there on Monday, according to Rami Abdul-Rahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The assault appears aimed at decisively pushing rebels back and securing the suburb of the shrine, said Abdul-Rahman. The Observatory is a Britain-based group of foreign-sponsored activists that has a network of spies on the ground.
Before the war, Muslim pilgrims from outside Syria regularly visited the shrine. Last year, rebels kidnapped Iranian pilgrims visiting the area.
Now protection of the shrine has become a rallying cry for fighters backing Assad. Lebanese fighters from Hezbollah as well as Iraqi Shia militiamen have been reported fighting in the area in the past weeks, though it was not clear if Iraqis were involved in the new assault.
This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Western states against providing weapons to Syrian militants who have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, saying the arms could one day end up in Europe.
Putin made the remarks during a press conference at the end of a two-day Group of Eight summit on Tuesday in Enniskillen, a secluded golf resort in the center of Northern Ireland.
“There are many such criminals in the ranks of the (Syrian) opposition, such as those who committed the brutal murder in London,” the Russian president said, referring to the May 22 slaying of a British soldier in the southeast London district of Woolwich by ax- and knife-wielding assailants.
“Is it these people that the Europeans want to supply arms? What happens next with those weapons? Who will control in which hands they end up? They could possibly (end up) in Europe,” Putin added.
The Syria crisis began in March 2011, and many people, including large numbers of government forces, have been killed.
Damascus says the chaos is being orchestrated from outside the country, and there are reports that a very large number of the militants are foreign nationals.
The Syrian government says the West and its regional allies — especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — are supporting the militants.
In addition, several international human rights organizations say the militants operating in Syria have committed war crimes.