DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government troops on Friday ambushed rebels near the capital, Damascus, killing at least 40 opposition fighters, state media reported. The ambush was part of the military's offensive against rebel strongholds around President Bashar Assad's seat of power.
Also Friday, Kurdish gunmen battled jihadi rebels in a northeastern Syrian town along the border with Iraq, leaving a number of casualties on both sides, activists said. Such battles have become increasingly common in Syria's bloodletting, adding another complex layer to the civil war, now in its third year.
The ambush near Damascus came hours after Assad's forces captured the town of Hatitat al-Turkomen south of the city, securing a key highway that links the capital with the Damascus International Airport.
State-run SANA news agency said 40 rebels were killed in the ambush, which took place near the Otaiba area, and that a large arms cache was seized, including anti-tank rockets. The area is part of a region known as Eastern Ghouta, which was the scene of a horrific chemical weapons attack in August, when several hundred people, including many women and children, were killed.
An unidentified Syrian army officer in the area told state-run Al-Ikhbariya TV station that there were foreign fighters among the dead and that the ambush followed an intelligence tip.
The TV broadcast footage showing more than a dozen bodies of men lying on the ground in an open area near a small river, along with scattered automatic rifles and hand grenades. A scroll on the TV read: "Eastern Ghouta is a graveyard of terrorists."
"It was a highly accurate operation," the officer told Al-Ikhbariya. "We will be moving from one victory to another."
Another soldier, who was also not identified, said the rebels belonged to the Islam Brigade and an al-Qaida-linked faction, Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that tracks Syria's crisis, said at least 20 fighters were killed in the ambush but gave no further details.
In other violence, the Observatory reported that a car bomb blew up outside a mosque in the village of Wadi Barada, and that 40 people were either killed or wounded in the blast. State-run news agency SANA said the car blew up as people were rigging it with explosives.
On the Kurdish-jihadi battles, the Observatory said Kurdish gunmen made advances in the predominantly Kurdish province of Hassaekh. The Kurdish militiamen entered the town of Yaaroubiyeh on Friday, clashing with several jihadi groups, including al-Qaida-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and Nusra Front.
Rebel-held Yaroubiyeh lies along one of the main border crossing points into Iraq and its capture would give the Kurdish militiamen a direct supply line from Iraq's northern Kurdish region.
The area has seen heavy fighting before and clashes between Kurdish fighters and jihadis in northern Syria have killed hundreds of people in the past months. Also, in March, gunmen killed 51 Syrian soldiers after they crossed from Yaaroubiyeh. The Syrians had crossed into Iraq to seek refuge following clashes with rebels on the Syrian side of the border.
The Observatory said Friday's clashes left casualties on both sides but gave no specifics. Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said at least two were killed.
Meanwhile, Syrian helicopter gunships attacked several areas of the rebel-held northern town of Safira, southeast of the heavily contested city of Aleppo, the country's largest. A military complex near the town is believed to include an underground facility for chemical weapons production and storage.
France-based Doctors Without Borders said 130,000 people have fled Safira this month and that the town has been under intense bombardment since Oct. 8. A statement from the group said 76 people had died in the town itself.
"These extremely violent attacks have pushed the populations that had already fled the war to a new exodus," Marie-Noelle Rodrigue from the group was quoted as saying.
She warned that those who fled are arriving in areas already saturated with displaced people.
In another development Friday, Norway turned down a U.S. request to receive the bulk of Syria's chemical weapons for destruction, saying it doesn't have the capabilities to complete the task by the deadlines set by an international chemical watchdog.
The Norwegian foreign minister, Boerge Brende, said his country could not find a port that could receive the required amount of chemical agents and didn't have the capacity to treat some of the waste products resulting from the destruction of the munitions.
The United Nations has set a mid-2014 deadline for the destruction of Syria's arsenal — a deadline Brende said was too tight for Norway.
It was unclear whether Norway's decision could delay compliance with the deadline for the destruction of weapons.
The Syrian conflict, which began as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad in March 2011, has triggered a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, killing more than 100,000 people, driving nearly 7 million more from their homes and devastating the nation's cities and towns.
The country is now carved up into rebel- and regime-controlled regions and fighting rages on unabated in many areas. It's those areas through which chemical weapons inspectors would have to navigate as they struggle against the tight deadlines to complete dismantling Syria's chemical stockpiles.
Mroue reported from Beirut. Associated Press writer Elaine Ganley contributed to this report from Paris.