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Smoke billows following a reported air strike in the rebel-held parts of the Jobar district, on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on March 19, 2017. (AFP/Amer Mohibany)

Smoke billows following a reported air strike in the rebel-held parts of the Jobar district, on the eastern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus, on March 19, 2017. (AFP/Amer Mohibany)

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Syrian regime forces Sunday launched a counter-attack and regained an area near the centre of Damascus hours after militants mounted a surprise assault in the adjacent eastern part of the city, a monitoring group reported.

Earlier on Sunday, militants from an alliance led by the al-Qaeda Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and allied rebels attacked regime positions in the eastern neighborhood of Jobar and advanced on the adjoining Abbasid Square, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Fierce clashes followed between both sides, and opposition fighters briefly seized a major parking area on the edge of the Abbasid Square, the watchdog added without giving casualty figures.

The Abbasid Square is a gateway to the heart of Damascus, the seat of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Residents in the centre of Damascus were cautious about going outdoors after shells and bullets had fallen into some downtown districts, the Observatory added.

No casualties were reported.

A security government source, who requested anonymity, told dpa that the attack started with two car bombings around 500 meters from the eastern edge of Damascus.

A third attack by a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt followed, leaving several people killed, the source added.

Fighters from the Islamist rebel groups Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman took part in the clashes against regime forces, activists said.

Syria’s state news agency SANA reported that government forces repulsed the attack by “terrorists” on military positions and residential buildings in Jobar and inflicted unspecified casualties on them.

The insurgents carried out the attack in Jobar after they had infiltrated through a network of tunnels, the agency said.

Control of Jobar is divided between the government and rebel factions.

Regime forces Sunday mounted intense shelling attacks and at least 35 airstrikes on rebel areas in Jobar and the neighbourhood of al-Qaboon north-east of Damascus, according to the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists inside Syria.

In recent months, al-Assad’s forces have intensified their attacks aimed at retaking opposition areas on the outskirts of Damascus.