Syrian troops ambush and kill dozens of rebels

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By ALBERT AJI, Associated Press

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian government forces ambushed members of an al-Qaida-linked group on Friday, killing dozens of them near a historic Christian village north of Damascus, activists and state media said.

State TV said troops surprised fighters of the Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front at dawn near Maaloula, which the group along with other rebels captured in late November for the second time this year. Maaloula had previously been firmly in the government's grip despite being surrounded by rebel-held territory.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said that dozens of opposition fighters were killed, and that 20 were wounded.

Maaloula is on the edge of the rugged Qalamoun region, about 60 kilometers (40 miles) northeast of the capital, where the government has been on the offensive for weeks capturing a number of towns and villages in the area.

Syrian TV aired footage of dead rebels in an open area with patches of snow. Most of the gunmen were civilian clothes and some still had their rifles. One of the dead had two rocket-propelled-grenades tied to his back.

A TV reporter moved toward a wounded rebel who was lying on the ground and asked him what nationalities they had among them, and the wounded gunman responds, "We had Saudi citizens with us."

Saudi Arabia is among the strongest backers of Syrian opposition fighters who are trying to remove President Bashar Assad from power.

Maaloula was a major tourist attraction before the civil war. Some of its residents still speak a version of Aramaic, a biblical language believed to have been used by Jesus.

The village has been under rebel control since last month. Most of Maaloula's 3,300 residents have fled to safer areas.

In the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest, mortar rounds struck the government-held neighborhood of Jamaliyah killing at least four people, the state news agency SANA and the Observatory said. SANA said 14 people were wounded in the attack while the Observatory put the number of 15.

More than 120,000 people have been killed so far in the war, now in its third year, according to the Observatory, a Britain-based watchdog that closely monitors the violence in Syria through a network of activists across the country. The U.N. said in July that 100,000 Syrians have been killed, and has not updated that figure since. Millions of Syrians have been uprooted from their homes because of the fighting.

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Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

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