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Syrian forces advance after scrapping ceasefire


BEIRUT: Syrian government loyalists captured a town and a village from militants and allied rebels in northwest Syria on Wednesday, after fierce clashes that killed nearly 30 combatants overnight, a war monitor said.

The town of Al-Zakat and the Al-Arba’een village in Hama province came under Syrian control on Wednesday morning, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It said the clashes overnight killed 10 loyalists and 18 opposition fighters, including 13 militants.

The push has also seen loyalists reach the edges of Kafr Zita and Al-Latamneh — respectively, a major town and a village — held by the opposition in northern Hama, according to the Observatory.

Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group led by Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate, has since January controlled Northern Hama as well as all of Idlib and adjacent parts of Aleppo and Latakia governorates.

A truce that started last Friday was supposed to protect three million people living in the region after three months of deadly bombardment by the regime and its ally Russia.

But HTS on Saturday refused to comply with a key condition to that truce, declaring 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. Moscow and Damascus have since resumed air strikes.

“The regime leveraged the ceasefire to send reinforcements to Northern Hama,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitor.

A Turkish-Russian deal struck in September last year was supposed to avert a massive government offensive on the Idlib region. But that deal was never fully implemented as militants 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. It has also pushed 400,000 people from their homes, according to the UN.

Syria’s conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and driven millions from their homes since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

Meanwhile, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said the United States is shifting closer to Ankara’s views on a proposed safe zone in northeast Syria, and that its plans for a military deployment there are complete.

Turkey and the United States, allies in Nato, have been deadlocked for months over the scope and command of the zone, given the presence of Kurdish YPG militia that fought alongside US forces against IS militants but which Ankara sees as terrorists who pose a grave security threat.

Ankara has accused Washington of stalling on setting up the safe zone spread over hundreds of km along Syria’s northeastern border and has demanded that the United States sever its ties with the YPG.

On Wednesday, the third day of fresh Turkish-US talks on the safe zone, Akar described them as “positive and rather constructive”, and that he expected them to finish within hours. — Agencies

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