- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 21, 2012

BEIRUT (AP) — Government forces stormed a rebel-held town outside Damascus on Tuesday after days of fierce fighting, killing at least 23 fighters, according to an activist group and a rebel spokesman.

In Aleppo, a Japanese TV reporter was killed Monday while covering the fighting in Syria‘s largest city. She was the first foreign journalist to die in the city since clashes between rebels and regime forces erupted there almost a month ago.

In neighboring Lebanon, where the civil war in Syria has been spilling across the border, security officials said clashes between supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad have left two dead and as many as 45 wounded. The army said the injured include nine Lebanese soldiers.

Damascus and its suburbs have witnessed a dramatic spike in fighting over the past month, and regime forces were stretched further when a major battle for control of the northern city of Aleppo erupted around the end of July. Before that, the fighting was concentrated outside the big cities during the 17-month-old uprising.

It has proved difficult for Mr. Assad’s forces to put down the rebel challenge in the big cities, a sign that the regime’s grip on power over the country is loosening.

The Local Coordination Committees activist group and a rebel spokesman said regime troops entered the rebel-held town of Moadamiyeh at dawn from four points. They searched homes looking for rebels. The rebel spokesman, who asked to be identified by his first name only, Ahmed, said three men in their late 20s and early 30s were shot dead execution style in the town soon after its fall into the hands of the regime forces.

The report could not be independently verified.

Moadamiyeh, west of the capital, Damascus, has been under siege for more than two weeks. Its capture followed days of intense fighting and shelling by government troops.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry confirmed overnight that veteran Japanese war correspondent Mika Yamamoto was killed in Aleppo. She worked for the Japan Press, an independent TV news provider that specializes in conflict zone coverage.

Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Masaru Sato said the 45-year-old Ms. Yamamoto was hit by gunfire while she and a colleague were traveling with rebels from the Free Syrian Army, who are fighting to topple the Assad regime.

Ms. Yamamoto covered the war in Afghanistan after 2001 and the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq from Baghdad as a special correspondent for NTV, according to the Japan Press website.

In northern Syria, an activist who goes by the name Abu al-Hassan said warplanes and helicopters attacked a number of towns and villages north of Aleppo early Tuesday, killing two civilians, including a young boy, and damaging homes. Several people were wounded.

After strafing a number of villages overnight, government fighter jets dropped two bombs on a residential part of the village of Marea, about 20 miles north of Aleppo, Abu al-Hassan said via Skype.

Amateur videos posted online showed a huge gray cloud of smoke rising over the village and a crater in a road that was strewn with rubble and two houses in which the ceilings had collapsed. Residents were searching through the rubble for survivors and carrying the wounded to pickup trucks. A second video showed a number of people, including a small boy, with serious injuries.

The videos could not be independently verified.

Marea is a relatively quiet farming village in the Aleppo countryside that was not known for being a hub of rebel activity, although one rebel group runs a prison in one of the village’s schools.

“Since the strike, all I can hear outside are cars coming and going,” Mr. al-Hassan said. “Actually, most of them are going.”

In Lebanon, officials said fighting broke out Monday night between supporters and opponents of Mr. Assad in the northern city of Tripoli, and it continued on into Tuesday. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The mostly Sunni city also saw gunbattles in May, when fighting over Syria killed eight people. The latest clashes are between gunmen from the Sunni neighborhood of Jabal Mohsen and the next door district of Bab Tabbaneh, which is populated mostly by followers of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Mr. Assad is a member of Syria‘s Alawite minority, while rebels fighting his regime are predominantly Sunnis.

The streets around the two districts were sealed off by roadblocks to keep people away from the line of snipers’ fire, but life went on normally in the rest of the city despite the occasional sound of gunfire.

Associated Press correspondents Ben Hubbard in Gaziantep, Turkey, and Bassem Mroue in Tripoli, Lebanon, contributed to this report.

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