Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

Turkey-backed Syrian fighters load ammunition at a frontline near the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province. (AP)
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Updated 27 February 2020

Turkey-backed rebels regain key Syrian town of Saraqeb

  • Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways
  • Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting

AMMAN: Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb, the first significant reverse for the Syrian army in a Russian-backed offensive that had made swift gains, the rebels said on Thursday.
Three weeks ago, the armed opposition lost the northwestern town at the junction of two main highways, following advances by the Syrian army in its bid to retake the last large rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war.
Nearly a million Syrians have been displaced by the latest fighting.
“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for a Turkey-backed coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front, said in a statement, referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported on Thursday that Russian-backed government forces had seized full control of southern Idlib province after fresh advances against the rebels.
Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in the southern Idlib area and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Observatory said.
The opposition advance on Saraqeb comes ahead of an end-February deadline set by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Turkey says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.
Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back.
Turkish and Russian officials were expected to hold a second day of talks in Ankara on Thursday on the conflict.
Ankara has sent thousands of troops and truckloads of equipment into Syria’s northwest corner bordering Turkey to back the rebels and set up new outposts that rebels say was in preparation for a Turkish operation to push back Assad’s forces.
Ibrahim Al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said the seizure of the town eases pressure on rebels who in recent days lost a string of significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.
“The rebels this morning completed their control of Saraqeb after having advanced from several fronts. This eases the pressure after the Syrian army’s recent gains,” Idlibi said.
Saraqeb is at the juncture of two main roads linking the capital of Damascus and its second largest city of Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.
Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, from the insurgents had marked a big gain for Assad’s forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.
Opening major highways in rebel hands to revive a shattered war economy has been a key goal of the Russian-led campaign.
“The opposition have now cut the highways and brought the regime to square one,” said Syrian opposition defector general Ahmad Rahhal.


Tunisia seeks to block online auction of royal artefacts

Updated 46 min 17 sec ago

Tunisia seeks to block online auction of royal artefacts

  • They are due to go under the hammer in an online June 11 sale organized by a Paris auction house

TUNIS: The head of Tunisia’s National Heritage Institute urged authorities Tuesday to block the sale of royal artefacts at an auction in France, saying they were spirited out of the country.
More than 100 objects “of huge historical value were taken out of the country without any official authorization in the second half of March, in the midst of the (coronavirus) lockdown,” Faouzi Mahfoudh said.
“They don’t belong to any state museum. It’s private property,” the head of the National Heritage Institute told AFP.
They include an ancient Qur'an which belonged to Mohamed el-Moncef Bey, one of the last representatives of the Husseinite monarchy that ruled Tunisia from 1705 until its independence from France in 1957, Mahfoudh said.
Also in the lot is the original copy of a reference book on the Husseinite monarchy written by 19th century Tunisian historian and politician Ahmed ibn Abi Dhiaf.
Among the 114 objects are ceremonial apparel from the start of the 20th century, religious manuscripts, poetry books and official correspondence.
They are due to go under the hammer in an online June 11 sale organized by the Paris-based Coutau-Bégarie auction house.
“The authorities must do what is needed to stop this sale because these objects have a priceless value and are part of the country’s history,” said Mahfoudh.
He said that authorities on Tuesday had launched an investigation to determine how the artefacts were smuggled out of Tunisia.
Mahfoudh said the National Heritage Institute had only found out on Sunday that the objects had left Tunisia without authorization.
“I will not cede these objects to anyone for all the money in the world,” Mahfoudh said.
The National Heritage Institute is also planning on submitting an official complaint to the state prosecutor, he said.