Bomb blast on Syrian army base kills at least 31 troops

Damascus blast kills 31, including 4 officers; Syrian military strikes on rebel stronghold force thousands into Lebanon

Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad stand near a tank in Tel Hasel, Aleppo province, after capturing it from rebels on Nov. 15, 2013.
George Ourfalian/Aleppo

At least 31 Syrian troops – including four officers – were killed in a massive bomb attack on an army base near Damascus on Sunday, a monitoring group said.

"Three generals and a brigadier general were among 31 troops killed in a bomb attack that caused a building in the military ... base in Harasta to collapse," said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the U.K.-based watchdog group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Heavy fighting also broke out in the rebel-held Qalamoun hills after Syrian forces launched a fierce offensive Friday, spurring thousands of Syrians to pour into Lebanon over the past two days, U.N. and local officials said.

The Qalamoun hills stretch across a rugged mountain region north of the Syrian capital along the Lebanese frontier. The attack against Syrian rebels appeared to be part of a long-anticipated government offensive aimed at cutting a key rebel supply route and cementing President Bashar al-Assad's hold on the strategic corridor from the capital to the coast.

Military airstrikes hit the town of Qara on Sunday in an attempt to cut rebel supply lines to Damascus, according to the Observatory.

"Regime troops are trying to storm (Qara) and drive the rebels out," Abdel Rahman said, adding that warplanes had bombarded the town heavily on Saturday as well.

Pro-government newspaper al-Watan also reported the attacks, describing the army as "closing in" on rebel fighters around the town.

Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr, reporting from Arsal in Lebanon, said at least a thousand families had fled across the border over the past two days alone.

Khodr said activists were describing the fighting in Qara as the first step in a larger battle for Qalamoun, a strategic and logistical hub for Syrian rebels. 

Over the past month, Assad's forces have made headway against the rebels on two key fronts, capturing a string of opposition-held suburbs south of Damascus and taking two towns and a military base outside the northern city of Aleppo. A government victory in the battle for Qalamoun would deal a severe blow to the already beleaguered rebels on Damascus' doorstep.

Desperate refugees

To read more on the Syrian refugee crisis, click here

Since the heavy fighting began Friday, some 10,000 Syrians have fled across the border to the Lebanese frontier town of Arsal, former Mayor Bassel Hojeiri said. He said the new arrivals have been crammed into wedding halls and improvised shacks.

Some families left so quickly that they arrived in Lebanon "without anything except the clothes on their backs," said Dana Sleiman, who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

She said at least 1,000 Syrian families crossed into Lebanon over the weekend, but many had not yet registered with the U.N., so more precise figures were not available.

Sleiman said some of the new arrivals settled into tin-shack slums that dot eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, and they were being offered thick plastic to reinforce their shelters against the cold. The U.N. refugee agency was also distributing blankets, mattresses, food, diapers and hygiene kits to the refugees.

The new refugees join an estimated 1.4 million Syrians — 800,000 of whom have registered — who have already found shelter in Lebanon, according to Lebanese officials. The massive influx has proven a burden for Lebanon, and has helped stoke the country's already simmering sectarian tensions.

Now in its third year, Syria's conflict has killed more than 120,000 people, according to the Observatory, which 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 it has not updated that figure since. Millions of Syrians have been uprooted from their homes by the fighting.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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