x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Syria says regime troops retake rebel city of Idlib

Syria says goverment forces retook Idlib, in north-west Syria near the Turkish border. It had been held by army defectors for several months but came under siege by government forces in recent days.

ISTANBUL // The Syrian regime said its troops had retaken the rebel stronghold of Idlib yesterday but remained silent on a peace plan by United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Idlib, in north-west Syria near the Turkish border, had been held by army defectors for several months but came under siege by government forces in recent days.

In other fighting, rebels killed 22 Syrian soldiers, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

More than 8,000 people have died and 230,000 have lost their homes since the uprising against the regime of Bashar Al Assad began a year ago, the UN says. About 200,000 Syrians are refugees in their own country and 30,000 have fled abroad, almost half of them to Turkey.

The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey reached a new peak of 13,000 yesterday, an increase of about 1,000 since March 9, according to a Turkish diplomat. The number of Syrian military defectors was also on the rise, with a total of six Syrian generals having fled to Turkey so far, the diplomat said.

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the world's largest Islamic body that includes Syria, said yesterday it had received permission by Damascus to send humanitarian aid.

"Preparations are under way for an assessment mission to depart to Syria and to the site of refugees on the borders of Turkey and Jordan," the OIC spokesman Tariq Bakhiet said.

Mr Annan ended several days of talks in the region without a breakthrough. After meeting a delegation from the Syrian National Council (SNC), an opposition umbrella group, in Ankara, Mr Annan said the Syrian government had not responded to a list of proposals he submitted during talks in Damascus at the weekend.

"I am expecting to hear from Syrian authorities today since I left some concrete proposals for them to consider," Mr Annan said. "Once I receive their answer we will know how to react." By last night, there was no news of a Syrian response.

Mr Annan also repeated his call for an end to the violence. "The Syrian people have gone through a lot and they deserve better," he said.

"I have made it clear at the beginning of my mission that my main preoccupation is welfare of Syrian people and the Syrian nation."

In Syria, Mr Assad set May 7 as a date for multiparty parliamentary elections. The poll is part of a series of political reforms that the government hopes will calm the protests against the president's rule but that have so far failed to stem the violence.

Russia said yesterday it would press Syria to accept international monitors of a ceasefire between government troops and armed rebels. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, criticised calls by Qatar for a military intervention in Syria.

Burhan Ghalioun, the SNC leader, speaking after meeting Mr Annan in Ankara, said several countries had offered arms supplies to Syrian rebels. Arming the opposition would run counter to Mr Annan's warning that a further militarisation of the conflict would make the situation worse.

"Our main objective is to reach a political and diplomatic solution," Mr Ghalioun said. "But if it fails, those countries will provide arms." Saudi Arabia and Qatar have said Syrian opposition forces should receive weapons.

Turkey, a former ally of Syria that has turned against the regime because of fears that a civil war next door could destabilise parts of Turkey, is also showing signs of scepticism regarding Mr Annan's mission.

"Assad is playing for time," Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, told Mr Annan during a meeting in Ankara late on Monday.

Yesterday, Mr Erdogan said a second conference of the "Friends of Syria", a group of about 50 countries determined to raise the international pressure on the Syrian government, would be held in Istanbul on April 2. The first meeting took place in Tunis last month.

tseibert@thenational.ae