Syrian government forces battled Tuesday with Al-Qaeda-linked rebels  trying to capture a Christian town south of Homs, activists and the state media said.
The Nusra Front appears to have targeted Sadad because of its strategic location near the Homs-Damascus highway. But hard-liners among the rebels are hostile to Syria’s Christian minority, who tend to support the government of President Bashar Assad, and other Al-Qaeda-linked fighters have damaged and desecrated churches in areas they have seized.
The assault on Sadad, some 95 kilometers north of Damascus, began at dawn Monday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Local police fought the initial assault back and were reinforced by the army.
The rebel attack seemed to target a hospital in the town, said the Observatory, which monitors fighting through activists on the ground . It said that there was also fighting in nearby Muhin and the Nusra Front controlled the main road leading to Damascus.
In September, rebels including Nusra Front members briefly captured the Christian town of Maaloula , northeast of Damascus, a village that is home to two of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria. Troops recaptured most of the town days after the rebels took it.
As clashes raged in Damascus’ Jobar, Qaboun and Barzeh neighborhoods, the army pressed to crush the rebels’ positions on the city’s outskirts.
Mortar bombs slammed into the suburb of Jaramana, killing at least two people, the state SANA news agency and the Observatory said. A teacher and 14 students were also wounded when a mortar bomb hit a school in the area.
It wasn’t immediately clear who was behind the shelling but rebels have previously targeted Jaramana, home to Christians and Druze. It is close to another suburb, Mliha, where fighting between rebels and government forces has been raging.
Days after advancing rebels broke through near Mliha, the air force unleashed an airstrike on the area, the Observatory said.
The Observatory reported at least three air raids and several attacks by helicopter gunships on the rebel-held town of Safira in Aleppo province , near a likely chemical weapons facility. The Observatory said one of the helicopter attacks hit an area where refugees were encamped, killing at least seven people including a child.
Loyalist helicopter gunships also unleashed heavy gunfire on rebel positions near Kweiris military airport, which has been under rebel siege for months, the Britain-based monitor said.
In Aleppo city, warplanes carried out an airstrike on the Bab al-Neirab neighborhood, scene of a horrific regime missile strike in July that killed at least 29 people, mostly children.
Warplanes raided Masaken Hanano also in Aleppo, the Observatory said.
Violence also raged south of the capital, with army shelling on Inkhil in Deraa province, killing a man and a child, the group said.