July 24, 2015 / 5:34 PM / in 2 years

Syrian rebels escalate attacks on army in southern Deraa city

AMMAN (Reuters) - Syrian insurgents said they intensified shelling of a major army and security area in central Deraa on Friday in a new bid to capture government-held parts of the strategic city along the border with Jordan.

Free Syrian Army fighters fire from a tank during what they said was an offensive against the forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the southern city of Deraa, Syria June 25, 2015. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir

Last month, the Southern Front group attacked to drive remaining government forces from the city but the assault was beaten back by well entrenched government forces drawing on air power the insurgents have lacked the means to confront throughout the four-year-long war.

Like Aleppo, Deraa city is already partially under rebel control and largely surrounded by insurgent-held countryside.

Southern Front group’s spokesman Isaam al-Rayyes said the latest offensive targeted a security zone in the center of the city, which the Syrian army had turned into a fortified base.

“We are now applying a new military plan and it is bringing good results ... I can describe today’s operation as paving the way for the liberation of the city,” he added.

The western-backed Southern Front, widely seen as the main rebel force in the south, also hit the Panorma gardens and a large stadium next to it both used as military barracks.

Rayyes said the insurgents deployed rocket launchers, heavy artillery and anti-tank TOW missiles in the latest offensive.

A main government compound in the city also caught fire from rebel shelling.

For Syrian President Bashar al Assad, Deraa is more strategically important than other areas lost recently.

Were the well-organized Southern Front groups to take the city, it would hasten their advance towards Damascus, just 100 km (60 miles) to the north.

The Syrian army said at least five civilians died and scores were wounded as a result of what it said was “terrorist shelling” of residential areas the city.

Last night, Syrian army raids on the rebel-held town of Gheiriya al-Gharbeya, east of Deraa, killed at least 13 people, mostly women and children, in stepped-up aerial bombing this week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that tracks violence in Syria and rebel websites.

Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Heneghan

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