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Rebels repel Syrian forces push into south Idlib


BEIRUT: Syrian rebels managed to repel Syrian troops who tried to push into the southern countryside of north-western Idlib province on Tuesday as part of a campaign for key rebel-held areas, including the stronghold of Khan Sheikhoun.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s forces were focusing their offensive on a small area called Tarai, which lies east of Khan Sheikhoun.

Khan Sheikhoun, the largest town in the south of Idlib, is located on the international M5 Aleppo-Damascus highway, which also passes through Homs. The government’s attempts to take Tarai had been repelled, Abdel Rahman said.

He added that rebels had managed to ambush government forces as they were trying to move into Tarai and had killed 13 of the advancing forces.

The watchdog said this is the second attempt in the last 24 hours by the troops to take Tarai, adding that nine rebels were also killed.

Abdel Rahman warned earlier that, if the government takes Khan Sheikhoun, “rebels in the area of northern Hama countryside will be in a difficult position. Either they will have to withdraw or fight till the end, as they will be under siege’’. “There have been heavy confrontations in Tarai since Monday,” said Brigadier Abu Salem, spokesman of the Jaish al Ezze group, which controls areas in Hama.

“The fighters there have so far foiled all attempts.” The hill of Tarai is close to Al Tamanah village, another rebel stronghold, Abu Salem said.

On Sunday, government forces captured the strategically important town of Al Habeet in the south of Idlib province. In late April Assad’s forces, supported by air power from allied Russians, started a wide-scale offensive against rebels in north-western Syria.

Meanwhile, the UN expressed grave concern over the resumption of violence following a short-lived ceasefire earlier this month.

After the three-day conditional ceasefire, fighting resumed, “impacting some three million people — 1.4 million of whom are already displaced — trapped in the crossfire,” said David Swanson, a spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Some 400,000 people have been displaced since April, according to UN estimates.

“The most recent figures indicate that there have been 500,000 movements. Many of these people have been displaced up to five times, while others have been displaced as many as 10,” Swanson added.

He warned that humanitarian needs have increased and that the aid community’s capacity to respond is being eroded. “The scale of displacement has outstripped previous contingency plans; with funding now an urgent concern,” Swanson added.

To sustain and scale up operations, “humanitarian partners need at least $242 million,” Swanson said.

Meanwhile, a German prosecutors said on Tuesday they had found no grounds to investigate Brenntag, the world’s largest chemicals distributor, over the sale to a company in Syria of substances that can be used in chemical weapons.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung, working with other media outlets, had in June reported that Brenntag sold ingredients with potential dual use in painkillers and nerve gas to a Syrian drugmaker, hitting its shares on concern over political repercussions in the United States.

But the prosecutors office in the western city of Duisburg said there were no sufficient signs of wrongdoing that would justify an investigation into Brenntag.

Duisburg prosecutors had taken over the case from counterparts in Essen, who in June received the initial complaint about Brenntag from three non-governmental organisations: New York’s Open Society Justice Initiative, Berlin’s Syrian Archive and Switzerland’s Trial International.

Brenntag said in June that a Swiss subsidiary had in 2014 supplied diethylamine and isopropanol to Syrian drugmaker Mediterranean Pharmaceutical Industries (MPI) to produce a pain killer, in line with relevant laws and regulations.

Swiss drugmaker Novartis said it had granted MPI contract manufacturing and local distribution rights for pain relief skin gel Voltaren.

The UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria said in March that government forces had perpetrated 32 of 37 chemical attacks it had reported during the Syrian war. The government denies using chemical weapons.

— Agencies

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