x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Syrian rebels capture northern town

The takeover of Harem, a town of 20,000 in northern Idlib province, was the latest in a string of recent rebel successes that include the capture of wide areas along the border with Turkey.

BEIRUT // Syrian rebels fully captured a northern town near the Turkish border yesterday after weeks of heavy fighting, activists said.

The takeover of Harem, a town of 20,000 in northern Idlib province, was the latest in a string of recent rebel successes that include the capture of wide areas along the border with Turkey.

Most of those areas have been in northern Aleppo province, where anti-government forces have captured at least three large military bases.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels captured Harem in the early hours yesterday. Mohammed Kanaan, an Idlib-based activist, said the last post to be taken was the historic citadel, which overlooked the town. The army had turned the citadel into a military post.

"Harem is fully liberated now," Mr Kanaan said. He added that as the rebels pounded army posts and checkpoints in Harem, the troops withdrew to the citadel that later fell in the hands of rebels.

Rami Abdul Rahman, who heads to Observatory, said nearly 30 soldiers and pro-government gunmen surrendered late on Monday. He added that rebels set free all gunmen at the age of 16 or less and referred others to local tribunals.

"Harem was very important because it is one of the towns that was loyal to the regime," Mr Abdul Rahman said by telephone about the town that is more than a kilometre from the Turkish border.

Israel, meanwhile, yesterday voiced doubt about the accuracy of Syrian activists' reports that chemical weapons had been used against rebels fighting to topple Syria's president Bashar Al Assad. "We have seen reports from the opposition. It is not the first time. The opposition has an interest in drawing in international military intervention," the vice prime minister Moshe Yaalon said on Army Radio. "As things stand now, we do not have any confirmation or proof that (chemical weapons) have already been used, but we are definitely following events with concern," he said. The Observatory gathered activist accounts on Sunday of what they said was a poison gas attack in the city of Homs. The reports are difficult to verify, as the government restricts media access in Syria.

Also yesterday, the international peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with internal opposition groups as he pushed a new initiative to end Syria's conflict. Mr Brahimi, the UN-Arab League's special envoy to Syria, held talks at his Damascus hotel with a delegation of six people led by Hassan Abdel Azim, the head of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), an opposition group tolerated by the regime. NCCDC chief Hassan Abdel Azim said after the talks that Mr Brahimi would stay in Syria until Sunday "to try to implement an international consensus to end the crisis". In Aleppo province, which neighbors Idlib, local activist Mohammed Saeed said rebels attacked a military base in the town of Mannagh near the border with Turkey. He said it is one of four air bases in the province.

Regime forces have been using helicopters to carry supplies to besieged areas and to attack rebel positions.

The regime has had increasing difficulty sending supplies by land to Aleppo province after rebels captured in October the strategic town Maaret Al Numan. The town is on the highway that links Damascus with Aleppo, Syria's largest city and commercial center and a major battleground in the civil war since July.

"Airplanes and helicopters are the only way to send supplies since the Free Syrian Army controls the land," Saeed said. He added that rebels are also laying a siege to Aleppo's international airport known as Nairab and threatening to shoot down military or civilians planes using it.

In the Damascus suburb of Jaramana, opposition gunmen ambushed the head of military intelligence in the area and seriously wounded him. He later died of his wounds, the Observatory said.

* Reporting by Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse