Syria regime attack kills 23 rebels in truce zone

Fighting erupted when government troops seized a position in a rural area in the north of neighboring Hama province, above. (AFP)
Updated 09 November 2018
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Syria regime attack kills 23 rebels in truce zone

  • Idlib and some surrounding areas are the last major rebel bastion in Syria
  • ‘This is the highest death toll in the de-militarized zone since it was announced’

BEIRUT: Syrian government forces killed 23 rebels near Idlib province on Friday, the deadliest clash to rock a buffer zone where a Russian-Turkish truce is to be enforced.

The attack on a position held by the Jaish Al-Izza rebel group took place on the edge of the northwestern province of Idlib, in an area due to be de-militarized.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government forces moved in to take a high building held by the rebels in a rural area of neighboring Hama province.

Idlib and some surrounding areas are the last major rebel bastion in Syria, where the Russian-backed government has in recent months retaken much of the territory it had lost since the civil war erupted in 2011.

It had threatened an assault on rebel territory, home to around three million people, but a deal for a de-militarized buffer zone around it was reached in September between Moscow and rebel backer Ankara.

Several deadly skirmishes have occurred since the deal but 23 is the highest number of known fatalities in a single incident inside the planned buffer zone, the Observatory said.

“This is the highest death toll in the de-militarized zone since it was announced,” Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based monitoring group, said.

He said at least 35 rebel fighters were also wounded in the clash but could not provide a casualty toll for government forces.

It was not clear what prompted the attack, which did not appear to signal any large-scale government offensive or otherwise threaten the September 17 truce deal.

The government troops pulled out of the buffer zone after the flare-up, the Observatory said, adding that the fighting went on for much of the night.

Jaish Al-Izza is a rebel group which was formerly supported by the United States and is mostly active in the Lataminah area of Hama province, where the attack took place.

It is not a member of the main rebel alliance in the Idlib area and after initially rejecting the truce deal struck by Moscow and Ankara, it had begun complying and pulling back its heavy weaponry.

The withdrawal of the most radical fighters and the removal of heavy weapons from the planned buffer zone has not happened in full but the agreement successfully averted an all-out government assault.

Aid organizations had warned that a fully-fledged offensive on Idlib could spark the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the civil war so far.

Moscow is expected to restrain Damascus while Ankara is supposed to use its leverage on the rebels, including jihadists, to get them to regroup in specified areas and halt attacks on strategic regime-held territory.

Only sporadic incidents have broken out in the 15- to 20-kilometer buffer zone in the past two months, killing 18 civilians and three fighters before Friday’s clash.

The task assigned to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is near impossible, observers say, but the pause in fighting in Idlib has been largely respected.

“Erdogan knows Russia needs him to ultimately convert its military victory into a political victory in Syria,” said Karim Emile Bitar, of the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Affairs.

He has since shifted the focus to northeastern Syria, where he has been threatening a military assault against Kurdish-held areas along the border.

The Kurds are the main allies of the US-led coalition in its push against the last pocket controlled by the Daesh group in eastern Syria.

In response to the Turkish threats, they have suspended their involvement in the fight against the jihadists, leaving Washington in a bind.


Libya reopens Tripoli’s only functioning airport

Updated 1 min 22 sec ago
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Libya reopens Tripoli’s only functioning airport

  • Mitiga airport was closed earlier in the day when residents reported an air strike on the Libyan capital
  • Mitiga airport offers air links to a city of an estimated 2.5 million residents

TRIPOLI: Libya has reopened Tripoli’s only functioning airport, aviation authorities said on a post on social media on Sunday.

Mitiga airport was closed earlier in the day when residents reported an air strike on the Libyan capital, but a later Facebook post noted the arrival of an African Airlines aircraft from Istanbul.

A Reuters reporter and several residents said they saw an aircraft circling for more than 10 minutes over the capital late on Saturday, and that it made a humming sound before opening fire on several areas.

An aircraft was heard again after midnight, circling for more than ten minutes before a heavy explosion shook the ground.

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It was not clear whether an aircraft or unmanned drone was behind the strike, which triggered heavy anti-aircraft fire. Residents had reported drone strikes in recent days, but there has been no confirmation and explosions heard in the city center this time were louder than in previous days.

Residents counted several missile strikes, one of which apparently hit a military camp of forces loyal to Tripoli in the Sabaa district in the south of the capital, scene of the heaviest fighting between the rival forces.

Authorities earlier closed Tripoli’s only functioning airport, cutting air links to a city of an estimated 2.5 million residents. The airport in Misrata, a city 200 km to the east, remained open.

The Libyan National Army (LNA) force loyal to commander Khalifa Haftar started an offensive two weeks ago but has been unable to breach the government’s southern defenses.

If a drone strike was confirmed this would point to more sophisticated warfare. The LNA has so far mainly used aging Soviet-made jets from the air force of Muammar Qaddafi, toppled in 2011, lacking precision firepower and helicopters, according to residents and military sources.

The violence spiked after the White House said on Friday that US President Donald Trump spoke by telephone with Haftar earlier in the week.

The disclosure of the call and a US statement that it “recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources” has boosted the commander’s supporters and enraged his opponents.

Western powers have been divided over a push by Haftar’s forces to seize Tripoli, undermining calls by the United Nations for a cease-fire.

Both sides claimed progress in southern Tripoli on Saturday, but no more details were immediately available.

A Reuters TV cameraman visiting the southern Khalat Furgan suburb heard heavy shelling but saw no apparent change in the frontline.

On Friday, two children were killed in shelling in southern Tripoli, residents said. The fighting has killed 227 people and wounded 1,128, the World Health organization said before the air strikes.

On Thursday, both the United States and Russia said they could not support a UN Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire in Libya at this time.

Russia objects to the British-drafted resolution blaming Haftar for the latest flare-up in violence when his LNA advanced to the outskirts of Tripoli earlier this month, diplomats said.

The United States did not give a reason for its decision not to support the draft resolution, which would also call on countries with influence over the warring parties to ensure compliance and for unconditional humanitarian aid access in Libya.