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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Hardline rebels launch big attack on Syrian government near Hama

The insurgent attack north of Hama revived hostilities in the north-western region near the Turkish border

A picture taken on September 19, 2017 shows hospital beds covered in rubble and debris following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces in the village of Al-Tahh, in the northwestern Idlib province. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour
A picture taken on September 19, 2017 shows hospital beds covered in rubble and debris following a reported air strike by Syrian government forces in the village of Al-Tahh, in the northwestern Idlib province. / AFP PHOTO / Omar haj kadour

Hardline rebel groups launched an offensive against government-held parts of north-western Syria near Hama on Tuesday in their biggest attack there since March

The attack triggered heavy air strikes on rebel territory, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It said air strikes hit three hospitals, a medical centre and premises used by a rescue service in rebel-held Idlib. A Syrian military source denied the report, saying only insurgent convoys and positions had been hit.

The insurgent attack north of Hama revived hostilities in the north-western region near the Turkish border that has been relatively calm in recent months as Russian-led diplomacy seeks to shore up ceasefires in western Syria.

Islamist militants who hold sway in Idlib reject the diplomacy, including a tripartite deal struck last week by Moscow, Tehran and Ankara to deploy an observer force on the edge of an Idlib "de-escalation zone".

A Syrian army source cited by state media said the attack launched on several fronts was being repelled, and the insurgents had suffered losses.

"The clashes are continuing and the air force and artillery are targeting the headquarters and movements of the terrorist convoys in the area," said the source.

An insurgent source told Reuters that rebels were making advances in the northern Hama countryside, in an area where President Bashar Al Assad and his allies have been steadily rolling back rebel gains over the last two years.

The Observatory said insurgents taking part in the assault included Tahrir Al Sham, the jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party, and rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. They had captured four villages, it said.

A group formally known as Jabhat Al Nusra, which cut ties with Al Qaeda and rebranded last year, spearheads the Tahrir Al Sham alliance of Islamist groups.

A media outlet run by Hizbollah said Syrian army air strikes were targeting insurgents in the northern Hama and southern Idlib area.

Insurgents advanced to within a few kilometres of government-held Hama city earlier this year, before the Syrian army and its allies retook the territory in April.

Ceasefire deals in western Syria - for years the main theatre of the war - have helped the Syrian army and its allies advance against ISIL in the east, where government forces are battling the extremist group in Deir Ezzor.

A US-backed militia force, the Syrian Democratic Forces, is waging a separate offensive against ISIL in Deir Ezzor province, focusing on areas on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

The rival forces have generally stayed out of each other's way, with the river often acting as a dividing line.

Syrian government forces and their allies have however crossed into the SDF's area of operations on the eastern bank of in recent days. The Hizbollah-run media unit said on Tuesday that government forces and their allies captured a village and parts of the nearby town of Khasham on the eastern bank.

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Syrian soldiers, with Russian air power, "continued to expand the captured area" in recent days.

"Despite the persistent resistance of ISIS (Islamic State) fighters, Syrian troops managed to free more than 60 square kilometres of terrorists on the left bank of the Euphrates,” he said.