x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Syria's rebels seize strategic village near Aleppo

Syrian rebels seized a strategic village on the edge of the northern city of Aleppo, activists say, just a day after opposition fighters sustained some of their heaviest losses in months in battles to the south near Damascus.

A Free Syrian Army fighter stands inside a burnt house in Deir Al Zor.
A Free Syrian Army fighter stands inside a burnt house in Deir Al Zor.

BEIRUT // Syrian rebels seized a strategic village on the edge of the northern city of Aleppo yesterday, activists said, just a day after opposition fighters sustained some of their heaviest losses in months in battles to the south near Damascus.

Government troops killed at least 75 rebels in and around the Syrian capital on Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday. It was one of the deadliest single-day tolls for opposition fighters recently.

The capture of the village of Khan Al Assal Monday was a rare bright spot in recent months for Syria's rebels, who have been battered by government forces on several fronts since June.

Opposition fighters yesterday took full control of the village, which lies on the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo, though clashes were still going on near Khan Al Assal. Inside Aleppo, air strikes targeted several rebel-held districts, said the Observatory, an anti-regime activists group that relies on reports from activists on the ground.

Aleppo, Syria's largest city, has been a major front in the country's civil war, now in its third year. Rebels seized control of much of the city, and swathes of the surrounding territory, during an offensive one year ago.

Khan Al Assal has been a major front in the fight for Aleppo. In March, chemical weapons were allegedly used in the village, killing more than 31 people. The Syrian government and the rebels blame each other for the attack, and both have demanded an international investigation.

Fighting also raged in Homs, Syria's third largest city, where the regime has been trying to oust rebels from the city centre in an offensive that started in late June. Monday's clashes concentrated on the rebel-held Khaldiyeh district, the Observatory said.

A rocket fired by government troops on Khaldiyeh hit the historic Khalid Ibn Al Walid mosque, damaging the tomb of a revered figure in Sunni Islam that is located inside the mosque.

Homs, a central Syrian city of about 1 million, has been an opposition stronghold since the uprising against president Bashar Assad's rule erupted in March 2011. It is located on the road between Damascus and regime strongholds on the Mediterranean coast.

More than 93,000 people have died in Syria's conflict, which started in 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad but escalated into a civil war.

Assad's troops have in recent weeks seized the momentum in the conflict, attacking rebels in Damascus and also in the north.

Also yesterday, the newly installed Egyptian government said it would cancel visa fees for Syrians, the latest effort to ease diplomatic tensions between the two Arab states after the army ousted President Mohammed Morsi this month.

Mr Morsi, a member of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, had cut off diplomatic relations with Syria, led by Shiite president Bashar Al Assad, last month at a rally packed with hardline fellow Islamists calling for holy war in Syria. Egypt's new army-backed administration has tried to distance itself from Mr Morsi's position, which analysts say could signal a desire to return to a role as a more neutral broker in the civil war. Millions of Syrians have been displaced in the fighting, including tens of thousands in Egypt.

Egypt's radio broadcast the news about the change in policy on Syrian visa on its main noon news show on Monday and said it was "meant to comfort the Syrian people". Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said on Saturday that Egypt has no intention of waging a holy war against Syria and was "re-examining" diplomatic ties with the war-torn country.

*Associated Press and Reuters