Syrian government forces yesterday launched an attack to capture a rebel-held hill in north-western Syria, a rebel official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported, an expansion of operations that have continued in that area despite a deal to cease fighting.
Rebels said the assault on Kabani hill in the province of Latakia was supported by Russian air strikes. Both the government and rebels have accused each other of violating the truce, which came into effect on Saturday.
The agreement does not include Islamic State or the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda-linked group that has a wide presence in northwestern Syria.
The hill overlooks the rebel-held town of Jisr al-Shughour in neighbouring Idlib province, and the Ghab Plain, where rebel advances last year were seen as a growing threat to President Bashar al-Assad.
“The regime and militias are trying to storm (the hill) under very fierce Russian air cover and artillery fire,” said Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal Division, a group fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.
Rami Abdulrahman, Observatory director, said: “If the regime is able to capture Kabani hill, the insurgents will be in a difficult position because this hill overlooks the Ghab Plain and Jisr al-Shughour.”
A rebel commander in northern Syria said: “Battles continue in vital areas that the regime wants, and where there was no truce in the first place. There is bombardment and battles.”
Opposition sees peace talks dates as ‘hypothetical’
A senior Syrian opposition official said yesterday dates for a resumption of UN-backed Syria peace talks remained hypothetical as long as the current truce does not fulfil its humanitarian demands.
A cessation of hostilities agreement came into force early on Saturday and the UN said on Tuesday that a new attempt at peace talks would begin on March 9.
“As long as the truce does not help implement the terms (of the UN resolution), all dates for the resumption of negotiations remain hypothetical,” Syrian opposition official George Sabra told Arabic news channel Arabiya Al Hadath.
“What is the value of a truce if its overseers - meaning America and Russia - do not push all sides to abide by it?” he said.
The opposition is pressing for full access to humanitarian aid, government sieges to be lifted, detainees to be released and air strikes to be halted before it takes part in negotiations. These were some of the conditions laid down in a UN Security Council resolution passed in December.
“The stability and success of implementing the truce’s goals will be the main factor for the resumption of negotiations on the date announced by (UN Syria envoy Staffan) De Mistura,” Sabra said.
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