Friday, December 15, 2017

Syrian regime gains momentum against rebels

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian army has recaptured most of the northern rebel stronghold of Idlib near the Turkish border, pushing hundreds of military defectors out of a major base they had held for months even as pockets of resistance kept up their fight on Tuesday.

The three-day operation to capture the city followed closely after a similar offensive to dislodge the opposition from another key piece of territory it had controlled, the Baba Amr district in the city of Homs in central Syria. The two victories gave President Bashar Assad's regime unmistakable momentum as it tries to crush the armed opposition fighters.

A pledge Tuesday from Syria's staunch ally Russia that Moscow will continue selling weapons to the regime was yet another boost. And a diplomatic bid by U.N. envoy Kofi Annan to broker a cease-fire and start negotiations failed over the weekend.

Still, international pressure is more intense than ever. On Tuesday, the Arab League chief, Nabil Elaraby, said the regime's killing of civilians amounts to crimes against humanity and he called for an international inquiry. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Assad should not believe he can survive the uprising without significant reforms.

Activists reported fresh violence in the central province of Hama near Homs, the suburbs of Damascus and elsewhere, killing dozens.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said troops have planted land mines near the borders with Turkey and Lebanon along routes used by people fleeing the violence. The group said that its report was based on accounts from witnesses and Syrian deminers and that the land mines have caused civilian casualties.

Fresh from a monthlong campaign that drove rebels out of Baba Amr in the city of Homs, Assad's forces launched a siege on Idlib three days ago. The city largely had been under control of hundreds of fighters for the rebel Free Syrian Army.

The pro-government Al-Watan daily and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops were in control of Idlib on Tuesday. The Observatory said the army was facing some resistance pockets in three Idlib areas, including the central neighborhoods of Dubait and Bustan Ghanoum.

Idlib, a predominantly Sunni city of some 150,000 people about 100 miles north of Homs, was among the first seized by army defectors last summer. Rebels were in control of large parts of the city in the past months.

Calls to the area were not going through, making it difficult to confirm the events of the past few days. But witnesses have said this week that army defectors in the city have been running out of ammunition.

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