Clashes kill 70 combatants in northwest Syria: Report

AFP Beirut, Lebanon Aug 11, 2019, 08.09 AM(IST)

File photo. Photograph:( AFP )

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Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, has since January controlled most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighbouring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces. 

Clashes between regime loyalists and insurgents in northwest Syria killed 70 combatants on Saturday, as government forces continued to nibble away at territory held by its opponents, a war monitor said.  

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, has since January controlled most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighbouring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces. 

Several other armed rebel groups also operate in the area.  

Fighting in northern Hama, southern Idlib and rural Latakia on Saturday claimed the lives of 32 pro-government forces as well as 38 jihadists and allied rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. 

It came as regime fighters pushed towards the town of Hbeit in the south of Idlib province, sparking clashes on its western edges, said Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitor. 

For days, forces loyal to Damascus have advanced towards a strip straddling the provinces of Hama and Idlib, the Observatory said. 

They aim to capture Kafr Zita -- one of the largest towns in northern Hama -- and the nearby village of Al-Latamneh from jihadists and rebels, said Abdel Rahman. 

Both lie on the southern edge of the jihadist-run bastion of Idlib, one of the last centres of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad after eight years of civil war. 

Regime forces have closed in on Kfar Zeita and Latamneh over the past week, after capturing a string of nearby towns and villages, the Observatory said.

They are also trying to surround the town of Khan Sheikoun -- located near Hbeit-- in order to wrest it from the jihadists, Abdel Rahman said.

The latest advances come after the Syrian government on Monday scrapped a short-lived ceasefire for the Idlib region, accusing its opponents of refusing to abide by the truce, which lasted only three days. 

The region was supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by a Turkish-Russian buffer-zone deal that was reached in September last year.

But it has come under increasing bombardment by Damascus and its backer Moscow since the end of April that has killed, according to the Observatory, more than 800 civilians.

Nearly 80 people have lost their lives in the retaliatory fire on regime-held territory in that same period, the monitor said.  

The violence has also pushed 400,000 people from their homes, according to the United Nations. 

Syria's conflict has killed a total of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.