Mortar fire killed at least six people in a suburb of the Syrian capital Thursday, activists and state media said, amid reports that clashes in a coastal province killed a top foreign fighter who was a former Guantanámo Bay detainee.
Syria’s state news agency said four mortar rounds slammed into Harasta, a district northwest of Damascus, killing six children and wounding five more. Another five people were wounded when a mortar struck the upscale central neighborhood of Maliki, the agency said.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said shells also struck central Damascus, including Ummayad Square, which is close to the state TV and radio stations, as well as the army command. It said there were no casualties.
The mortar fire came as activists reported heavy clashes and government air raids in the Damascus suburb of Mleiha, as well as the capital’s Jobar neighborhood. Both areas are controlled by the rebels.
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The Observatory said at least 10 rebels were killed in the Mleiha fighting.
Also Thursday, private Lebanese television station Al-Mayadeen and Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar said Syrian troops killed a Moroccan militant once detained at the U.S. military’s Guantanámo Bay prison. The stations described him as the chief of the hard-line Sham al-Islam Movement.
The stations said Brahim Benchakroun, better known in Syria as Abu Ahmad al-Maghribi, was killed Wednesday while fighting government forces in the coastal province of Latakia. Rebels launched in offensive in Latakia late last month, capturing several villages while also gaining their first access to the sea.
Last year, when another former Guantanámo detainee was killed fighting with the insurgency, a man with the nom de guerre Abu Ahmad al-Maghribi was identified as Ibrahim Bin Shakran, a similar if not identical name of different spelling.
The U.S. repatriated Bin Sharan to Morocco in July 2004. The Defense Intelligence Agency listed him among “confirmed” former Guantánamo recidivists on a fact sheet released by the Department of Defense in April 7, 2009. He was described as an al-Qaida recruiter in Iraq.
The Observatory said Benchakroun was critically wounded Wednesday but could not confirm whether he had been killed.
A Latakia-based activist who goes by the name of Mohammed Abul-Hassan said Bencharkoun was defending the strategic hill known as Observatory 45 that fell to the rebels last week.
If confirmed, the former Guantanámo detainee’s death would be the second Moroccan sent home from the prison camps to be killed in the civil war in Syria. In September, the opposition posted a video on youtube showing a eulogy for a fallen rebel identified as Mohammed al Alami.
It described him as a Northwest African veteran of the jihad in Afghanistan “who went through hardship for the sake of God in the prison of the Americans in Guantánamo for five years.”
Abul-Hassan said Benchakroun used to be a member of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked rebel group in Syria. Benchakroun then set up his own Sham al-Islam group after the Nusra Front split with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The Sham al-Islam Movement took part in a rebel offensive in August that captured several Latakia villages before eventually being dislodged by government troops. Latakia is a bastion of support for President Bashar Assad, and the ancestral home the leader’s Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Syria’s conflict, now in its fourth year, has killed more than 150,000 people, according to activists. More than 2.5 million people have fled the violence to find shelter in neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within the country.
Despite the destruction and relentless violence, Assad is quietly preparing the ground to hold presidential elections early this summer to win another 7-year term. Syrian officials present the elections as the solution to the nation’s crisis: If the people choose Assad in the election, the fight should end; if Assad loses, then he will leave.
No date has been set yet for the vote, which must be held between 60 and 90 days before Assad’s current 7-year term ends on July 17. Last month, the Syrian parliament approved an electoral law opening the door – at least in theory – to potential contenders besides Assad.
On Thursday, 11 nations that support the main Syrian opposition group in exile sharply criticized the notion of holding elections amid a raging civil war.
The so-called London 11, which includes the United States as well as its Europe and Gulf allies, accused Assad of viewing such elections as a means “to sustain his dictatorship,” and said the recent moves by the Syrian government to lay the foundations for the polls to “have no credibility.”
“They (the elections) would be conducted in the midst of a conflict, only in regime-controlled areas, and with millions of Syrians disenfranchised, displaced from their homes, or in refugee camps,” the 11 countries said in a joint statement. “An electoral process led by Assad, who the United Nations considers to have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, mocks the innocent lives lost in the conflict.”
Associated Press writer Ryan Lucas contributed to this report.