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Syria rebels vow retaliatory attacks

BBC News BBC News 18/04/2016
Rebel fighters rest with their weapons in Latamina village, northern Hama countryside (5 March 2016) © Reuters Rebel fighters rest with their weapons in Latamina village, northern Hama countryside (5 March 2016)

Rebels say they have begun a new battle in north-western Syria in response to alleged truce violations by the army.

Survivors of reported government air strike in city of Aleppo (16 April 2016): The rebels say the government has continuously bombed residential areas during the truce © Reuters The rebels say the government has continuously bombed residential areas during the truce

A statement announced the formation of a joint operations room following what it said was an increase in attacks on residential areas and displaced people.

Map showing territorial control in the Syrian conflict (23 February 2016) © BBC Map showing territorial control in the Syrian conflict (23 February 2016)

Rebels were said to have subsequently launched attacks in the province of Latakia and in neighbouring Hama.

Members of the Syrian opposition High Negotiations Committee attend a meeting in Geneva (18 April 2016): Opposition officials are threatening to pull out of the Geneva talks because of a lack of progress © AFP Opposition officials are threatening to pull out of the Geneva talks because of a lack of progress

The rebels also urged opposition negotiators in Geneva to take a tougher stand at UN-led peace talks.

The cessation of hostilities brokered by the US and Russia to make way for the talks has resulted in a significant reduction in violence since it took effect on 27 February.

But escalating fighting in recent days, particularly around the divided northern city of Aleppo, has left it on the verge of collapse.

Violence has also spilled over into Turkey. One person was killed and another wounded when four rockets hit the south-eastern town of Kilis, which is across the border from an area of Syria controlled by the so-called Islamic State (IS). The town has been fired on previously.

Separately, Turkey's Dogan news agency reported that the Turkish military had fired artillery into Syria after a mortar landed near an army outpost in Hatay province.

Rebels launch assaults

"After the increase of violations by regime forces that included targeting displaced people and continuous bombing of residential neighbourhoods, we declare the start of the battle in response," said the rebel statement issued on Monday morning.

The text was signed by the powerful Islamist groups Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, as well as several groups that fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that rebels had launched an assault on the positions of government forces and their allies in Latakia's northern countryside early on Monday and by midday had made advances.

The UK-based monitoring group also said rebels were close to taking over the town of Khirbat al-Naqus, in the strategically important Sahl al-Ghab plain in the north-west of Hama province.

A Syrian military source confirmed the attacks, according to the Reuters news agency.

Latakia is the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, and the Sahl al-Ghab lies just to the east of the coastal mountains where Mr Assad's ancestral village of Qardaha is located.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory said four people were killed in heavy government air strikes in northern Homs province.

Twenty-two civilians were killed over the weekend in Aleppo, with at least 16 dying as a result of rebel shell- and sniper-fire and the six others dying in government air strikes, according to the group.

Peace talks warning

In Geneva, the opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) threatened to pull out of the UN-led indirect peace talks with the government because little progress was being made on any of the main issues, including the future of President Assad.

"We might suspend [our participation in] the talks if things carry on this way, and then there will be no prospect for any political solution," HNC member Abdul Hakim Bashar told the AFP news agency.

"The humanitarian situation is continually deteriorating, the issue of the detainees has not seen any progress, the ceasefire has almost collapsed, and now there is an attack on Aleppo from three sides."

Militants from Islamic State (IS), which along with the rival jihadist group al-Nusra Front is excluded from the cessation of hostilities, have meanwhile seized more territory from rebel groups near the Turkish border north of Aleppo, forcing some 35,000 civilians to flee towards the opposition-held town of Azaz.

Medecins Sans Frontieres warned on Monday that the situation was now critical for more than 100,000 displaced people trapped around Azaz, with active fighting just 7km (four miles) away and the border closed for all but the most seriously ill Syrians.

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