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Activists: Bomb near Syrian capital kills 16

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian rebels assaulted a checkpoint in a pro-government suburb of Damascus on Saturday, setting off a suicide car bomb that killed 16 soldiers, activists said.

Rebels led by the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front set off the bomb while assaulting a checkpoint near the town of Mleiha adjoining the suburb of Jaramana, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It reported heavy fighting after the blast.

The state news agency SANA confirmed the suicide blast in Jaramana and said it wounded 15 people, most of them seriously.

Rebels control much of the countryside around Damascus but Jaramana, a Christian and Druse area, is mostly loyal to President Bashar Assad. Opposition fighters have previously targeted it with bombings and mortar rounds.

The violence came a day after nine Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon kidnapped in Syria last year were freed as part of a negotiated hostage deal that could see two Turkish pilots held by Lebanese militants and dozens of Syrian women held in Syrian government jails released.

Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel said that the Syrian opposition had demanded that the female detainees be taken to Turkey. He said once that that issue was resolved the complicated, multilateral exchange would be complete.

"We are speaking with the Syrians about this issue and, God willing, when this logistical matter ends the whole process will end," Charbel told the Al-Manar television channel of Lebanon's Hezbollah group.

While details about the deal remained murky, it appeared to represent one of the more ambitious negotiated settlements to come out of Syria's civil war, now in its third year, where the contenting sides remain largely opposed to any bartered peace.

The deal appears to have been mediated by Qatar and the Palestinian authority. Qatari Foreign Minister Khaled al-Atiyah has been in Turkey following on the case and is expected to fly with the pilgrims to Beirut when they return home.

Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri issued a statement thanking Qatar and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, "who personally began his contacts from the first day in order to liberate" the pilgrims. Berri also thanked Turkey and "brotherly Syria" that cooperated in order for the pilgrims to be freed.

The pilgrims, who according to Charbel crossed into Turkey late Friday, were part of a group of 11 hostages taken by a rebel faction in northern Syria in May 2012. Two were later released, but the nine had been held since, causing friction in the region and sparking the August kidnapping in Beirut that saw two Turkish Airlines pilots abducted.

The two Turkish Airlines pilots, previously identified as Murat Akpinar and Murat Agca, were kidnapped after flying into Beirut from Istanbul on Aug. 9. Lebanon's state news agency reported that a group called Zuwaar al-Imam Rida, a name implying a Shiite affiliation, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. The group said the pilots "will only be released when the Lebanese hostages in Syria return," referring to the Shiite pilgrims.

The pilgrims were kidnapped while on their way from Iran to Lebanon through Turkey and Syria. Militants kidnapped them shortly after they crossed the Turkish border into Syria.

The pilgrims being taken hostage set off a series of revenge kidnappings in the months that followed by Shiite clansmen inside Lebanon. Gunmen abducted two Turks and some 20 Syrians, though all were later released.

Turkey has become a frequent target of criticism from the relatives of the remaining hostages, in part because the Syrian rebels operate near the Turkish border. Ankara is a fierce critic of the Assad regime, and has offered both covert and open support to the rebels trying to overthrow him.

Assad has drawn support from Syria's ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and members of his Alawite sect. The rebels are dominated by Syria's Sunni Muslim majority. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters have played a critical role in recent battlefield victories for forces loyal to Assad.

At least 100,000 Syrians have been killed in the civil war.

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