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Syrian army kills 175 rebels in ambush

DAMASCUS — Syrian army troops on Wednesday killed 175 rebels, many with links to Al Qaeda, in an ambush described as one of the deadliest attacks by government forces against fighters near Damascus, according to state media.

An opposition group said the dawn ambush — part of a government effort to secure the capital — was carried out by the Lebanese Hezbollah group, which has been instrumental in helping President Bashar Assad’s regime push back rebels entrenched in the suburbs of the capital city.

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Syrian state news agency SANA quoted a field commander in the eastern Ghouta area as saying most of the rebels killed in the assault near Oteibah Lake southeast of Damascus belonged to the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front rebel group. The report said several of those killed were foreign fighters who came from Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, and Qatar.

SANA said the operation dealt ‘‘a smashing blow to terrorists,’’ a term Syrian state media uses for rebels.

The agency posted several photographs on its website showing dozens of bodies of men, some with leg wounds, lying in a dirt track of an open field. Some were wearing fatigues, but most wore civilian clothes and appeared to have been carrying bags of clothes and bottles of water that were scattered on the ground, suggesting they were changing locations when they were ambushed.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 152 rebels were killed, most of them from the Nusra Front and others from Islamic brigades. ‘‘This is the heaviest loss for Nusra Front and Islamic brigades since the start of the revolution,’’ said Rami Abdurrahman, director of the rights group.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV aired exclusive footage of what it said was the ambush, showing at least two large bombs that were detonated along the route used by the opposition fighters. From a distance, people could be seen running in different directions following the blasts.

An army colonel told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen channel that his troops acted on intelligence and the rebels lost ‘‘more than 150 men.’’ Syrian army tanks and armored personnel carriers were seen in the broadcast, as were soldiers patrolling on foot.

In a similar operation near Damascus in August, Syrian troops killed more than 60 opposition fighters on a desert road northeast of the capital.

Syria’s conflict started as largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule in March 2011. It has developed into a civil war that has taken on increasingly sectarian overtones, pitting mostly Sunni Muslim rebels against Assad’s government, which is dominated by Alawites, a sect in Shi’ite Islam.

More than 140,000 people have been killed, activists say, and millions have fled their homes to seek shelter in neighboring countries or in safer parts of their homeland. Many refugees have settled temporarily in areas sealed off by Assad’s troops, with little if any food or medical aid within reach.

In Damascus, Assad met Wednesday with Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the influential Iranian parliamentary committee on national security and foreign policy, who appealed for a political solution to the conflict.

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