Syrian government forces on Friday killed 23 rebels near Idlib province. It was 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. It is in an area due to be de-militarized.
The Russian – Turkish buffer zone
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that government forces moved in to take a high building held by the rebels in a rural area of neighboring Hama province.
Idlib and a few 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 that erupted in 2011.
The Syrian government 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.
Read more: Buffer zone in Idlib: A ray of hope in Syria
There have been several deadly skirmishes 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, told AFP.
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.
Government troops had pulled out of the buffer zone after the flare-up, said the Observatory, adding that the fighting went on for much of the night.
Former US-supported rebel group
Jaish al-Izza, a rebel group formerly supported by the United States, 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 started 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 completely, but the agreement successfully averted an all-out government assault.
Heavy weapons being withdrawn
Aid organizations had warned that a fully-fledged offensive on Idlib could spark the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the civil war so far.
There have only been sporadic incidents in the 15- to 20-kilometer (nine- to 12-mile) buffer zone in the past two months. Only 18 civilians and three fighters had lost their lives before Friday’s clash.
av/aw (AFP, dpa)
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