x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Syrian government drops leaflets calling on Idlib rebels to surrender

Syrian government aircraft scatter leaflets over the northern province of Idlib calling on rebels to hand themselves over and urging foreign fighters to return to their homelands.

Smoke rises as a mortar shell hits a building in the town of Al Hula in the Syrian province of Homs.
Smoke rises as a mortar shell hits a building in the town of Al Hula in the Syrian province of Homs.

BEIRUT // Syrian government aircraft scattered leaflets over the northern province of Idlib on Wednesday, calling on rebels to hand themselves over and urging foreign fighters to return to their homelands, as regime troops pressed on with the battle to recapture areas they had lost to the opposition.

The call came after another bloody day. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, said 40 civilians and 70 fighters - regime troops and rebels - were killed in clashes nationwide on Tuesday.

One of the leaflets, aimed at foreign fighters, read: "Abandon your weapons and return to your family. You have been tricked."

Another leaflet gave instructions to rebels - foreign and local - to approach Syrian government checkpoints slowly and wave the paper in the air as a sign of surrender.

Syria's conflict began in March 2011 with peaceful protests against Mr Assad's rule but escalated into a civil war in response to a brutal government crackdown. Foreign fighters, many of them hardline Islamists seeking to impose their deeply conservative version of Islam, have also swelled the ranks of rebels.

The battle for the Idlib province is just one of a series of clashes that have been flaring lately as a concerted push by government forces seeks to dislodge rebels who had seized control of large swathes of the country.

The Observatory also reported clashes yesterday in the northern province of Aleppo, which is next to the border with Turkey and serves as a rebel gateway for weapons and supplies.

There was also fighting in towns on the outskirts of the capital, Damascus, and the southern province of Daraa.

Syrian troops, alongside fighters from the Lebanese Shiite Hizbollah group, were encircling the neighbourhoods of Khaldiyeh and Bab Houd in the central city of Homs, which rebels have held for a year.

"The war here is now from building to building," said Tariq Badrakhan, an activist speaking via Skype from the city. "They are trying to take the area a block at a time."

He said Syrian forces were "cleaning" the area of rebels by firing mortar shells at buildings, with the heaviest shelling occurring at dawn.

In Idlib province, rebels had besieged the provincial capital, also called Idlib, over the past two weeks, causing food shortages and price hikes, said Mohammad Kanaan, an activist in the city.

He said rebels had set up checkpoints - blocking some roads with large rocks and destroying others, and preventing food and other basic supplies from entering - in an effort to force the civilians to leave so they could storm the city.

"Residents are pleading with the Free Syria Army to loosen their grip, but they are trying to pressure people to leave Idlib," Mr Kanaan said.

He said there were few places the civilians could go as the city was already swelled with people who had fled from violence elsewhere, and that government troops often shelled nearby rebel-held areas.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have been internally displaced because of the fighting, and the UN estimates that another 1.7 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighbouring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, many of them children.

On Tuesday, Valerie Amos, the UN humanitarian chief, warned during a visit to Lebanon that Syrian refugees there could double in number by the year's end if the uprising does not abate.