Syrian Forces Kill 175 Rebels in a Major Ambush Near Damascus

However, opposition forces say the fighters were escorting civilians in need of medical aid

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A Free Syrian Army fighter poses with his weapon under a torn picture of Hafez al-Assad, father of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, at the Tameko pharmaceutical factory, after the FSA claimed to have taken control of the factory, in eastern al-Ghouta, near Damascus January 14, 2014.

Forces loyal to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad said they delivered a devastating blow to opposition elements, including Al Qaeda-linked fighters, after killing 175 rebels during an ambush near Damascus.

According to an English-language report published by the state-backed SANA news organization, “the army pursued terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra and the so-called Liwa al-Islam on the outskirts of Damascus in accordance with a military campaign aiming to tighten the government’s grip on Eastern Ghouta to prevent rebel groups from providing reinforcements to the besieged suburb.”

Government sources went on to claim that the rebel column was comprised of foreign fighters including those of  “Saudi, Qatari and Chechen nationalities.”

The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the Lebanese militia Hizbollah assisted regular forces from the Syrian Army in carrying out the ambush. The group gave a lower death toll of 152 and said seven injured fighters were taken prisoner.

During an interview with Al Jazeera, representatives from the Free Syria Army asserted that the rebel convey was escorting civilians in need of medical care, who were fleeing areas that were under siege by pro-government groups.

Plagued by internal fighting between Islamist groups and a lack of heavy weaponry, rebel outfits have been losing ground steadily to forces fighting on behalf of Bashar Assad for months.

After three years of bitter conflict, the civil war in Syria has claimed an estimated 140,000 lives and displaced millions of the country’s citizens.