BEIRUT (AP) — Suicide bombers targeted Syrian troops and a hospital on Wednesday in the rugged Qalamoun hills north of Damascus, where rebels are struggling to reverse government gains that threaten to cut one of their chief supply lines, activists and officials said.
There was no immediate word on casualties from the attacks in Nabak and Deir Attiyeh. The towns belong to a string of communities along a route used by rebels to bring supplies from nearby Lebanon to opposition-held enclaves outside the capital and to the central city of Homs.
A suicide car bomber targeted a checkpoint manned by Syrian soldiers while another blew up near a security headquarters. Both were on the outskirts of Nabak, said Rami Abdurrahman from the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and another activist based near the town.
In Deir Attiyeh, two suicide car bombers detonated their explosives outside a hospital, killing the guards, Syrian state television said. It said the attackers were Saudi citizens.
State television also said that troops repelled the attackers, and that the attackers tried to vandalize hospital equipment. It was not possible to reconcile the two versions.
Abdurrahman said the rebels belonged to the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. He obtains his information from a network of activists on the ground.
Fighting has been going on in the region since last week, when forces loyal to the government of President Bashar Assad started an offensive against towns overlooking rebel supply lines. A government victory would tighten the siege of rebel-held enclaves near Damascus, where fighters are losing ground to the army and residents suffer from chronic food shortages.
On Tuesday, Syrian forces seized the town of Qara from rebels, and activists say their next target is likely to be the nearby larger town of Yabroud, a major smuggling hub for rebels.
Assad's forces, shored up by fighters of the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, have scored key battlefield wins in recent weeks.
But the Iranian-backed Hezbollah's involvement has created deep tensions in Lebanon, where the country's patchwork of minority groups are broadly divided between those who support Assad and the rebels seeking to overturn his rule.
On Tuesday, twin suicide bombers targeted the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 23 people. An al-Qaida group claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in response to Hezbollah and Iran's involvement in Syria.
As fighting continues, thousands of refugees are pouring into neighboring Lebanon, prompting reluctant government officials to agree to let aid groups build a transit camp for Syrians for the first time since the uprising began three years ago, a U.N. official said.
Government permission came after over 12,000 Syrians poured into the eastern Lebanese town of Arsal over the past five days, when the Qalamoun battles began, said Lisa Abou Khaled of the U.N.'s refugee agency.
Hundreds of the latest refugees had nowhere to go because Arsal's extra accommodation was already taken by other Syrians. Refugees were sleeping in two wedding halls, a mosque and crowding into other slums.
"Shelter options are exhausted," she said.
Abou Khaled said the transit camp would accommodate 50 tents — one for each family. She said the first phase would be ready in coming days.
Lebanese officials were not immediately available for comment.
Some 1.4 million Syrians, including 800,000 registered refugees, have fled to Lebanon since Syria's conflict broke out in March 2011, overwhelming the country's infrastructure, school system and crowding out Lebanese for unskilled jobs.
Lebanon is reluctant to build camps to house them, fearing they will stay permanently. Lebanon is built around a delicate sectarian balance of Muslim and Christian sects. Any influx of extra people — like mostly Sunni Syrians — can affect that balance, leading to internal strife.