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Jan 30, 8:48 AM EST

Activists: Syrian rebels blow up tunnel under army post

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BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian opposition fighters on Friday detonated a cache of explosives in a tunnel under an army post in the northwestern province of Idlib, inflicting heavy casualties among government troops, activists said.

The government denied the casualties and said the targeted post was empty.

Idlib-based activist Ibrahim Ismail said the blast was followed by intense clashes as the rebels launched an attack to retake the Arbaeen Mountain area early on Friday. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting was some of the most intense in months, adding that dozens of Syrian troops have been killed and wounded.

Syrian state television later quoted an unnamed military official as saying that the army repelled the attacks, adding that the tunnel explosion occurred near a military post that troops had already evacuated. The official said rebels tried to infiltrate the Syrian town of Ariha but failed and suffered losses in "lives and equipment."

The military official said "terrorist groups" launched their attack starting 4 a.m. on several army posts, but were all repelled.

The Observatory said the main rebel factions taking part in the attack include Suqour al-Sham as well as the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.

The attacks in Idlib came a month after Nusra Front and other rebel groups captured two major army bases in the province. Rebels now control most of Idlib province, although the government still controls heavily populated areas, including Ariha and the provincial capital, Idlib.

"The main aim of this attack is to liberate Ariha," Ismail said via Skype. The town is a major supply line for the city of Idlib.

In the nearby province of Aleppo, Nusra Front fighters clashed with members of the Hazm Movement, another rebel group that has in the past received U.S. support, according to the Observatory. The groups have clashed in the past, mostly recently in November in Idlib province.

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