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Jul 11, 12:02 PM EDT

Syrian rebels attack defense minister's village


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BEIRUT (AP) -- Rebels attacked the Syrian defense minister's village on Friday, capturing parts of it after killing at least 18 soldiers and pro-government gunmen, activists said.

The assault began with a suicide bombing against an army checkpoint in government-controlled Rahjan, which is in the central province of Hama. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said rebels then stormed into the village, killing the soldiers and pro-government gunmen and gaining control of several areas.

An activist in Hama who goes by the name of Muhannad al-Muhammad confirmed that rebels, including members of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, broke into the village and captured large parts of it.

But there were conflicting reports on how much of the village the rebels had seized. Rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad control large parts of Hama province, while the Syrian government controls the provincial capital and other areas.

Defense Minister Gen. Fahd Jassem al-Freij, who has played a major role in fighting rebels, is from Rahjan, which is 90 kilometers (55 miles) northwest of Hama city. Al-Friej was the army chief of staff before being named defense minister office two years ago.

The attack came two days after rebels rampaged through the village of Khatab elsewhere in the province.

The Syrian conflict began in March 2011 as a largely peaceful uprising against Assad and eventually turned into a civil war following a brutal government crackdown on protesters.

More than 170,000 people have been killed in the fighting, nearly half of them civilians.

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