Syrian rebels seize strategic hill near Aleppo: NGO

A man stands on the debris of damaged buildings in al-Katerji district in Aleppo on March 22, 2014. Syrian rebels seized a strategic hill west of Aleppo after a fierce battle with government troops on Saturday as fighting elsewhere in the north sprea
A man stands on the debris of damaged buildings in al-Katerji district in Aleppo on March 22, 2014. Syrian rebels seized a strategic hill west of Aleppo after a fierce battle with government troops on Saturday as fighting elsewhere in the north spread across Latakia province, an non-government organisation said. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIRUT (AFP) - Syrian rebels seized a strategic hill west of Aleppo after a fierce battle with government troops on Saturday as fighting elsewhere in the north spread across Latakia province, an non-government organisation said.

At least 21 pro-government forces and 21 rebels were killed in the battle for Shwayhneh that overlooks a government-controlled sector of western Aleppo, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The hill's capture puts the Zahra district, where the air force intelligence services have headquarters, within firing range of the rebels, said the Syrian Revolution General Commission, a coalition of opposition groups.

Rebels have sought for months to capture Zahra, a move that could pose a threat to Syrian regime forces in the city of Aleppo, once the country's commercial hub.

Fighting also raged on Saturday between rebels and loyalist forces in Latakia province, said the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and medics on the ground for its reports.

Rebels seized a military position known as Observatory 45, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, Mr Rami Abdel Rahman told Agence France-Presse.

He said Islamists from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front, Sham al-Islam and Ansar al-Sham were taking part in the fighting against regular troops and pro-regime militiamen.

Latakia province, which includes President Bashar al-Assad's family village, is considered a regime stronghold, and many of its residents are from his Alawite minority.

Large parts of the province have remained relatively insulated from three years of fighting in Syria.

But the province was shaken on Friday as three Islamist groups battled to seize the Kassab border crossing into Turkey.

The fighting prompted Mr Assad's government to complain to the United Nations that Turkey was providing cover to rebels crossing the border from its territory.

The Observatory said at least 41 people were killed in the battle for Kasab, including 20 rebels and five civilians.

The Syrian state broadcaster said fighting there was still raging late on Saturday and that the army had inflicted "heavy casualties in the ranks of the terrorists" - the regime's term for rebels.

Fighting also raged in three government-controlled villages in the north of Latakia province, while loyalist forces shelled three other rebel-held towns, said the Observatory.

On Tuesday, Al-Nusra, Sham al-Islam and Ansar al-Sham announced the launch of an "Anfal" campaign in Latakia.

Elsewhere, the Observatory said that a woman and a child died on Saturday of malnutrition in the town of Douma in the Eastern Ghouta sector, near Damascus, that has been under army siege for months.

More than 146,000 people have died in Syria's three-year war, and millions more have been displaced.

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