Damascus seizes two Syria villages from jihadists and rebels

BEIRUT: Regime forces captured two villages from jihadists and allied rebels in northwest Syria on Thursday following deadly clashes, days after ditching a ceasefire for the area, a war monitor said.

The villages of Al-Sakhr and Al-Jaysat in Hama province came under regime control, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Both lie on the southern edge of the jihadist-run bastion of Idlib, one of the last centres of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad after eight years of civil war.

Fierce clashes in the area since Wednesday night killed seven regime personnel as well as 18 anti-government fighters including 11 jihadists, the Britain-based Observatory said.

The regime and its Russian ally on Thursday slammed northern Hama and southern Idlib with air strikes, it said.

State news agency SANA said rocket fire from within the bastion on Thursday wounded five civilians including two children in a government-held village in rural Latakia province.

Loyalist forces have closed in on towns and villages held by anti-government forces in northern Hama in recent days, as they push towards the provincial borders of Idlib.

On Wednesday, they captured the town of Al-Zakat and Al-Arbaeen village in Hama province, according to SANA and the Observatory.

They have also closed in on Kafr Zita and Al-Latamneh — another town and village in the same area, the Observatory said.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group led by Syria‘s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, has since January controlled most of Idlib province as well as nearby parts of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia governorates.

A truce that started last Friday was supposed to protect the three million people living in the region, halting three months of deadly regime and Russian bombardment.

But HTS on Saturday refused to comply with a key condition to that truce, vowing it would never withdraw from a planned buffer zone around the area.

On Monday, the government declared the truce over, accusing its opponents of attacking civilian areas and bombarding an air base of its ally Russia.

A Turkish-Russian deal struck in September last year was supposed to avert a massive government offensive on the region.

But that deal was never fully implemented as jihadists refused to withdraw from the planned demilitarised cordon.

Instead, heightened attacks by the regime and Russia have killed more than 800 civilians since the end of April, the Observatory says.

Nearly 80 people have lost their lives in retaliatory fire on regime-held territory in that same period.

The violence has also pushed 400,000 people from their homes, according to the United Nations.

Syria‘s conflict has killed a total of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.