BEIRUT — Syrian troops ambushed and killed at least 150 rebels east of Damascus on Wednesday in one of the deadliest single attacks against opposition fighters, according to state media, opposition groups and human rights activists.
The attack occurred in an area near the much-contested town of Oteibah that is frequently used by fighters to ferry arms and supplies from the Jordanian border. A journalist from the opposition Orient TV reporting from the area said that some of the men were civilians, that some were fighters, and that they were all trying to escape the siege that has strangled the rebel-held suburbs surrounding Damascus for months.
About 100 civilians and 75 fighters had set out shortly after midnight, only to run into a wall of fire along one section of their route, said Hadi al-Munajeed, who spoke on the condition that his exact location not be revealed. Two hours later, 24 survivors, most of them badly wounded, returned to the location, he said.
“We heard a number of explosions, followed by shelling and the sounds of a missile launcher,” he said. “It was like nothing we heard before.”
The official Syrian Arab News Agency implied, however, that the men were seeking to enter the Damascus suburbs to reinforce rebels battling Syrian government advances in the mountains northwest of the city. It put the number of the dead at 175, identified all of them as “terrorists” and said most belonged to the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra.
The agency posted pictures of mangled bodies strewn along what appeared to be a track leading through fields in a rural area. The bodies were of men, and some of them were wearing military uniforms and the beards favored by many fighters in Syria.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 152 people were killed and that Syrian government troops were assisted in the ambush by fighters with the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, whose contribution has helped the government turn the tide of the war over the past year.
The ambush came as a further setback to the rebels at a time when many opposition-held towns ringing Damascus are submitting to cease-fire deals after enduring months under siege. The rebels are also battling a new government offensive against the town of Yabroud, a key way station that gives them access to supplies and weapons from Lebanon.