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Scores Killed As Rebels Battle to Break Siege of Damascus Suburbs

Shi'ite fighters, who support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, search for rebels from house to house in the countryside near Damascus

Damascus-  A ferocious battle in the eastern suburbs of Damascus has killed more than 160 people in the past two days as rebels struggle to break a months-long blockade by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, activists said on Sunday. The fighting began on Friday when rebel units attacked a string of military checkpoints encircling the opposition-held suburbs in an area known as the Eastern Ghouta, which has been under siege for more than six months.

Local and international aid workers say Assad’s forces appeared to be trying to starve out residents – indiscriminately affecting civilians as much as rebel fighters. The blockade has cut off rebels’ weapons supplies and helped turn the tide of fighting around the capital in Assad’s favor. The battle has also drawn in hundreds of foreign fighters on both sides, underlining how Syria’s civil war has stirred Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian tensions across the region.

“It is a ferocious fight between the two sides because it’s a struggle over our ultimate fate here,” said Bara Abdelrahman, an activist who works with the Islam Army brigades in the area. The conflict in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people, according to the United Nations, and is also destabilizing Syria’s neighbors.

The mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have drawn support from radical Sunni groups such as al Qaeda and other foreign militants. Shi’ite countries and militias have thrown their weight behind Assad, who is from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Rebels say Lebanon’s Shi’ite guerrilla movement Hezbollah has joined the Eastern Ghouta battle on Assad’s side, as has the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, a militia that includes Shi’ite fighters from around the Middle East. (Reuters)

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