Syrian government gains ground from rebels in northwest

By Tom Perry
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Syrian government gains ground from rebels in northwest

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watchtower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces seized ground from insurgents in northwestern Syria on Thursday, sources on both sides said, building on advances since the military declared an end to a brief ceasefire earlier this week.

The humanitarian adviser to the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria said the new upsurge in violence in the northwest threatened the lives of millions after more than 500 civilians were killed since late April.

The Russian-backed army operations resumed on Monday after the government accused neighboring Turkey, which backs some rebel groups in the area, of not abiding by commitments in the truce. The army's capture of al-Sakhr in northern Hama province on Thursday followed the taking of two villages on Wednesday.

A rebel commander said government forces had been able to advance in the northern Hama area due to heavy air and artillery strikes. "The situation is difficult but recovering the positions we lost is not impossible and we will work on that," Colonel Mustafa Bakour of the Jaish al-Izza rebel group told Reuters by text message.

Assad's side has struggled to make significant gains in more than three months of military operations in the northwest, the last major foothold of rebel groups in Syria.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the eight-year-old conflict, said the advances by Assad's side over the last two days were its most significant since June, noting that the army was closing in on three rebel-held towns.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman said 64 combatants had been killed in the last two days, 40 of them rebels and two dozen government fighters.

The most powerful insurgent group, the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, said dozens of government fighters had been killed in an attack on the two villages seized on Wednesday.

"Every inch of our liberated land will cost (Assad's side) dearly," it said in a statement.

Air strikes and bombardment of the rebel-held area by the Syrian government and Russian forces have uprooted hundreds of thousands of people.


SPECTER OF NEW REFUGEE EXODUS - U.N.

The United Nations warned that the fresh violence threatens the lives of millions and potentially could drive hundreds of thousands more civilians from their homes.

"All this is happening at the doorstep of Turkey, so there is a threat for Turkey, a direct impact with massive displacement of people toward the north, heading toward Turkey and of course a threat for the rest of Europe," said Panos Moumtzis, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria's crisis.

"We have so far 39 health facilities, 50 schools, water points, markets, bakeries, and multiple civilian neighborhoods who have received a direct hit," he told reporters in Geneva.

The Syrian government had said it would agree to the ceasefire on condition militants fulfilled a Russian-Turkish deal last year which aimed to create a demilitarized zone.

Though Turkey-backed rebel factions operate in Idlib province in the northwest, the dominant force there is the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham group, formerly known as the Nusra Front.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the resumption of operations. "Appalled by situation in Idlib and how Assad backed by Russia revoked a 'conditional' ceasefire just days after announcing it - a repeated pattern of behavior," Raab said on Twitter.

"Attacks on civilian targets are a violation of international humanitarian law – this must stop."

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said earlier this month the United Nations would investigate attacks on U.N.-supported facilities and other humanitarian sites in the northwest after two-thirds of the Security Council pushed for an inquiry.

Russia and Syria have said their forces are not targeting civilians or civilian infrastructure and questioned the sources used by the United Nations to verify attacks.


(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Guy Faulconbridge in London; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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