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Rebels launch assault on Syria's Deraa

Also Thursday, a barrel bomb attack on the West Ghariya area of Deraa killed 13 civilians, including two children
File photo shows a fighter in Syria's Deraa province

BEIRUT - Rebels including al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate on Thursday launched a fresh offensive on the major southern city of Deraa, saying their aim was to "purify" the area.

Operation "Storm of Truth" was announced on Twitter by the Southern Front, an alliance of rebel groups, "to purify the province of Deraa from the filth of the gangs of (President Bashar al-) Assad." 

"The violent attack began this morning on regime-held parts of Deraa city, with both sides exchanging shellfire," Syrian Observatory for Human Rights Director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

"The groups are attacking government positions in northern parts of the city, but they haven't seized buildings yet." 

Al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front and other militias are taking part in the fighting in Deraa, dubbed the "cradle of the revolution" against Assad which began in 2011, triggering Syria's civil war.

An important rebel military commander has also died in the assault, the Observatory said.

Abou Hadi Abboud, who headed the Fallujah al-Houran opposition group, part of the Southern Front military coalition, was killed Thursday when a shell hit his car in Deraa province.

"He is the most important rebel commander to be killed since the beginning of the Deraa offensive in June," Abdel Rahman said. 

Regime aircraft have conducted at least 21 air raids and dropped 32 barrel bombs on rebel positions. 

Late Thursday, a barrel bomb attack on the West Ghariya area of Deraa province killed 13 civilians, including two children. 

"The two children were just reduced to body parts. From the waist down, there's nothing," Abdel Rahman said. 

Another three children and a woman were killed in a rocket attack on a rebel-held neighbourhood in Deraa city. 

Opposition groups already control parts of the city and about 70 percent of the province of the same name, which borders Jordan. 

Thursday's offensive appears to be a continuation of an assault in June, launched by the same groups but dubbed "Southern Storm." That round of fighting left at least 60 rebels, 18 loyalists and 11 civilians dead. 

The Assad government has already lost two provincial capitals - Idlib in the northwest, which is held by a rebel alliance including al-Nusra, and Raqqa in the Euphrates valley, which is held by the Islamic State (IS) group. 

Separately Thursday, intense clashes between troops and IS fighters in the northern Aleppo province left at least 12 government forces and one militant dead. 

The government fighters were able to retake a strategic hilltop northeast of Aleppo city, the Observatory said. 

At least 230,000 people have been killed since the Syrian conflict began.