Syrian rebels in Idlib launch counter-attack against regime

Fighters are trying to retake village considered the first line of defence for the rebel stronghold

Smoke billows following shelling in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria's Idlib province on May 10, 2019. AFP
Smoke billows following shelling in Khan Sheikhoun in Syria's Idlib province on May 10, 2019. AFP

Syrian rebel groups on Friday launched a counter-offensive to retake territory lost to government forces this week in last stronghold in the country, state media and a war monitoring group said.

Syria state Al Ikhbariya TV claimed troops repelled the insurgent attacks against Kfar Nabudah village, which government forces said was captured three days earlier as they pushed into the southern edge of the rebel enclave.

But the Britain-based war monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the insurgents, led by Al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, advanced into the village, sparking intense clashes and government air strikes.

The latest wave of fighting is the most serious challenge to a ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey last September. The rebel stronghold, which spans most of Idlib province and part of Hama in the country's north-west corner, is the last pocket of anti-government opposition in the eight-year civil war. Several foreign powers have intervened in the conflict, with Russia and Iran backing the government and Turkey supporting rebel factions.

A spokesman for the rebel umbrella group National Front for Liberation, Naji Al Mustafa, said that after the government attacks, opposition fighters from various factions co-ordinated to launch a new assault Friday to recapture Kfar Nabudah. Clashes were continuing and the government has suffered losses, he said in a text message.

Kfar Nabudah was considered the first line of defence for the rebel stronghold. Its capture on Wednesday enabled government troops to advance to the east, regaining control of the town Qalaat Madiq.

The UN Security Council was scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss the violence in Idlib.

UN officials estimate that the clashes have displaced more than 150,000 people in the area since erupting last week.

A spokesman for the World Food Programme, Herve Verhoosel, said on Friday that it had suspended food distribution to 47,500 people inside the rebel stronghold for a couple of days due to the insecurity. The suspension has particularly hit Saraqab, Jisr Al Shughur and Maarat Al Numaan, towns in southern Idlib close to the intense fighting.

Late on Thursday, Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency said Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and requested that the attacks on Idlib stop. Mr Lavrov told Mr Cavusoglu that the government's attacks on Idlib had been halted, according to Anadolu.

A transcript of the call posted on Russia's Foreign Ministry website, however, did not mention a Russian pledge to stop the attacks. It only said that the two ministers discussed Idlib and the importance of "fighting against the terrorist threat on the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria".

Published: May 10, 2019 05:16 PM

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