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Nov 23, 11:46 AM EST

Syrian rebels attack besieged Shiite villages

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BEIRUT (AP) -- Al-Qaida militants and Syrian rebels launched an attack against two predominantly Shiite Muslim villages in northern Syria that have been under siege for some 18 months, activists and a monitoring group said Sunday.

The Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the assault on the pro-government villages of Nubul and Zahra began overnight.

Fighters from the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front joined by Islamic rebel groups took control of an area south of Zahra on Sunday, the Observatory said. It added that at least eight rebels and several pro-government fighters have been killed in the clashes.

The Local Coordination Committees said the fighting was focused on the southeastern outskirts of Zahra.

Hard-line Sunni opposition fighters have besieged Nubul and Zahra, which have a combined population of some 40,000, since the spring of 2013. The villages are located just off of a highway running from the city of Aleppo to the Turkish border.

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