Ferocious fighting in the eastern suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus, has killed scores of rebels and government troops. Foreign fighters are said to be among those taking part.
Activists said on Sunday that at least 160 rebel fighters and Syrian troops have been killed in two days of fighting in the Eastern Ghouta region on the fringes of Damascus.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based opposition monitoring group, said the fighting began on Friday when rebel units launched an assault on military checkpoints around the opposition-held suburbs.
The group said the dead included 55 rebel fighters, 41 jihadists from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and the al-Nusra Front, 36 Syrian regime troops, 20 members of a Shiite Iraqi group fighting alongside the army and eight members of a Syrian pro-regime militia.
Casualty figures cannot be independently verified, as foreign journalists are largely denied access to conflict zones.
Government troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been blockading the area for months in a bid to starve out civilians and force rebels to surrender. Local and international aid workers say the blockade has affected civilians along with the rebels.
The blockade has cut off weapons supplies to the rebels fighting to oust Assad, whose troops are gradually gaining the upper hand in areas around the capital.
Rami Abdurrahman from the Observatory said Iraqi Shiites and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah had joined the fighting on the side of Assad, whose minority Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have drawn support from radical Sunni groups such as al Qaeda.
The Syrian conflict, which began in March 2011, has killed an estimated 120,000 people. Millions more have fled their homes.
tj/ccp (AFP, Reuters, AP)