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Jul 3, 2:15 PM EDT

Militants, rebels in Syria announce new push for Aleppo



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BEIRUT (AP) -- Islamic militants and rebels in Syria launched fresh attacks on government-held neighborhoods in Aleppo on Friday, setting off some of the heaviest fighting in months in the contested northern city, activists and state media said.

The fighting is part of a new coordinated offensive in Aleppo by a newly-formed coalition between al-Qaeda's branch in Syria, the Nusra Front, and the ultra-conservative Ahrar al-Sham group, and other rebels. The groups said they seek to "liberate" Aleppo under their coalition called Ansar al-Sharia.

A former industrial and commercial hub, Aleppo has been carved up between government and rebel-held neighborhoods since 2012. With the city devastated by three years of fighting, many of its residents have long fled.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the attacks started early Thursday with concentrated rocket attacks targeting the government-held Zahra neighborhood in western Aleppo, where some of the Syrian army's key military installations are located.

The government struck back with a series of airstrikes and shelling that killed at least 35 militants, according to the Observatory. There was no casualty figure for government troops.

State TV said troops repelled the attacks and aired a live report from the city to show the situation was under control.

The formation of Ansar al-Sharia and its push in Aleppo comes amid a string of battlefield losses for President Bashar Assad's overstretched forces in the north and south.

Near the capital, Damascus, a bomb exploded inside a mosque in the opposition held Tal area on Friday, killing a Sunni Muslim cleric, Syria's state TV reported.

The TV said the bomb was placed under the pulpit, or minbar, at the Grand Mosque and went off shortly after the midday prayers ended. The report said Sheikh Suleiman Afandi was instantly killed.

It was not immediately clear who was behind the killing. Tal has witnessed reconciliation between the government and rebels but is mostly opposition-controlled.

Bombings targeting mosques have not been uncommon during Syria's civil war. In 2013, Sunni Muslim preacher Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramadan al-Buti - an outspoken supporter of President Bashar Assad - was killed along with at least 41 others when a suicide bomber struck a Damascus mosque.

Also Friday, near the Lebanese border, Syrian troops and pro-government fighters tried to storm the mountain-resort of Zabadani under the cover of intense airstrikes, the Observatory said.

The local Coordination Committees, said rebels are defending Zabadani, adding that three local fighters were killed there on Friday.

Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed more than 220,000 people and wounded at least a million, according to the U.N.

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