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Blow to Assad as extremist rebels overrun Idlib city

Rebels led by Al Qaeda affiliate seize most of provincial capital, only the second to fall after Raqqa.
Rebel fighters, one of them carrying a flag used by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, celebrate at the Mihrab roundabout in the Idlib city centre on March 28, 2015. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
Rebel fighters, one of them carrying a flag used by Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, celebrate at the Mihrab roundabout in the Idlib city centre on March 28, 2015. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters

BEIRUT // Extremist Syrian rebel groups including Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front have seized major parts of city of Idlib for the first time in the country’s four-yearold conflict.

The city of 100,000 people is close to the main highway linking Damascus to Aleppo and to the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad.

“They have entered the city from several sides but the major push was from the northern and western sides,” said Rami Abdelrahman from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group which monitors the conflict.

If the insurgents seize Idlib, the capital of a north-western province of the same name, the province would be the second after Raqqa to be fully under the control of rebels. Raqqa is a stronghold of the extremist group ISIL group and has been a target of US-led air strikes.

Syrian state media said the army was bombarding groups who are trying to enter the city.

A video posted online by Nusra Front shows dozens of fighters in the streets of what a voice says was Idlib city.

An alliance of extremist groups, including the Ahrar Al Sham movement and Jund Al Aqsa, launched the offensive to take the city on Tuesday.

The humiliating losses in Idlib mark the second blow to government forces this week, after rebels, led by Nusra, captured the ancient and strategic town of Bosra Al Sham in southern Syria.

Also Saturday, the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said he was angry and shamed by the failure of the world to stop Syria’s raging civil war. Speaking at a summit of Arab leaders in the Egyptian resort city of Sharm El Sheik, Mr Ban promised to step up diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

More than 220,000 people have been killed since protests against the Assad regime in March 2011 turned into an insurgency following a brutal military crackdown.

Syria’s seat was empty at the Arab League summit in Sharm this weekend. The main Western-backed Syrian group, the Syrian National Council, slammed the Arab League’s decision not to invite it for the second year in a row.

The group considers itself as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people and had been declared as such by the Arab League. But its role has diminished greatly in the past year as militant groups became increasingly powerful in Syria.

* Reuters and Associated Press

Updated: March 28, 2015 04:00 AM

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