BEIRUT — Syrian rebels launched a wide-ranging offensive against government positions near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday, after tit-for-tat shelling in and around Damascus left at least 33 people dead, activists said.
The rebels of the Southern Front alliance and the so-called Haramoun Army targeted several areas in the Golan, including the towns and villages of Quneitra, Khan Arnabeh, Baath, Jiba and the base of Brigade 90, the main government force in the region, said opposition activist Jamal al-Jolani, who is based in southern Syria.
"The fighting now is inside the city of Quneitra," al-Jolani said via Skype. He said the Haramoun Army -- which includes al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate and the ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham -- are shelling the area while Southern Front fighters are advancing on the ground.
Insurgents have been on the offensive in southern Syria for the past three months, capturing military bases, villages and a border crossing point with Jordan.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fighting on Wednesday left a soldier and one insurgent dead, after six rebels were killed the day before.
Explosions from the fighting could be seen from the Israel-controlled Golan Heights several miles (kilometers) away. A Syrian government helicopter could be heard dropping bombs on rebel targets as tanks, believed to belong to the rebels, fired back. An Israeli warplane flew along the frontier as a precautionary move.
Just before noon, warning sirens sounded in the Israeli-occupied Golan, near the Quneitra border crossing. The shelling and gunfire from Syria's civil war has occasionally strayed across the frontier, but there were no immediate reports of any spillover on Wednesday. The Golan is a popular destination for tourists, some of whom stopped to watch the fighting in the distance.
Syria's state-run SANA news agency meanwhile said two shells struck Arnous Park in Damascus late Tuesday, killing nine and wounding 13 as people were out shopping ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Thursday.
Government forces had earlier fired Iranian-made "elephant" rockets on the rebel-held suburb of Douma, killing 24 people, including five children and 14 women.
Insurgents on the outskirts of Damascus occasionally shell the capital, drawing massive retaliation from government forces, which have reduced several rebel-held suburbs to rubble.
Associated Press journalist Ariel Schalit in Merom Golan, Golan Heights and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria contributed to this report.