Syr­ian troops seize ter­ri­tory from IS in cen­tral prov­ince

Rus­sian strikes, Hezbol­lah aid ad­vance

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

DA­M­AS­CUS: Syr­ian troops backed by Rus­sian airstrikes cap­tured ar­eas from the Is­lamic State group in the cen­tral prov­ince of Homs yes­ter­day, in the lat­est push since the aerial cam­paign be­gan nearly two months ago, state me­dia and a mon­i­tor­ing group said. The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said troops backed by pro-gov­ern­ment gun­men en­tered the town of Mheen and the nearby vil­lage of Hawa­reen af­ter mid­night Sun­day and were in full con­trol of the area hours later.

Syr­ian state TV also re­ported that Mheen and Hawa­reen were cap­tured, adding that gov­ern­ment forces are now re­mov­ing the mines and ex­plo­sives left be­hind by the ex­trem­ist group to try to slow down the army’s ad­vance. “A big vic­tory was achieved by our he­roes,” said a Syr­ian TV re­porter em­bed­ded with gov­ern­ment troops in Mheen.

The cap­ture of Mheen and Hawa­reen helps se­cure the high­way link­ing the cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus to the cen­tral city of Homs. The gov­ern­ment’s next push is ex­pected to tar­get the nearby town of Qary­atain and later the his­toric town of Palmyra, which was taken by IS in May. Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al-As­sad said in re­marks pub­lished Sun­day that his forces are ad­vanc­ing on “al­most” all fronts thanks to Rus­sian airstrikes.

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Rus­sia has con­ducted an air cam­paign in Syria since Sept 30, and the airstrikes have sharply in­ten­si­fied in re­cent days. The head of the Ob­ser­va­tory, Rami Ab­dur­rah­man, said Rus­sian war­planes and he­li­copter gun­ships played a ma­jor role in open­ing the way for troops to ad­vance in the desert near Homs. He added that around 50 IS fight­ers were killed in days of fight­ing in Mheen, Hawa­reen and sur­round­ing ar­eas. Homs-based op­po­si­tion ac­tivist Be­bars Al-Talawy said that gov­ern­ment forces were backed by mem­bers of Le­banon’s Hezbol­lah group.

Syr­ian troops have cap­tured dozens of vil­lages in north­ern, western and cen­tral Syria since the Rus­sian airstrikes be­gan. The Ob­ser­va­tory said the Rus­sian airstrikes have killed 403 civil­ians, in­clud­ing 97 chil­dren un­der the age of 18. It said the strikes killed 381 IS fight­ers as well as 547 gun­men from other in­sur­gent groups. The Vi­o­la­tions Doc­u­men­ta­tion Cen­ter in Syria, an ac­tivist group that keeps track of Syria’s dead, wounded and miss­ing per­sons, said that the first 45 days of Rus­sian airstrikes killed 526 civil­ians, in­clud­ing 137 chil­dren and 71 women.

In neigh­bor­ing Iraq, the coun­try’s Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity sus­pended flights to the north­ern Kur­dish self-ruled re­gion for two days start­ing yes­ter­day due to Rus­sia’s air cam­paign in Syria, it said in a state­ment late Sun­day. The state­ment said the sus­pen­sion of flights to the cities of Irbil and Su­laimaniyah is to “pro­tect trav­el­ers” as cruise mis­siles and bombers cross north­ern Iraq from the Caspian Sea to Syria. It said air­ports in other parts of the coun­try will op­er­ate nor­mally.

Last month, Rus­sian war­ships in the Caspian Sea fired cruise mis­siles nearly 1,500 km over Iran and Iraq. Rus­sia says its in­ter­ven­tion is aimed at help­ing the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment de­feat IS, but lo­cal activists and US of­fi­cials say the strikes have also tar­geted Western-backed groups fight­ing to over­throw As­sad. In Septem­ber, an in­tel­li­gence shar­ing cen­ter was set up in Bagh­dad by Rus­sia, Iraq, Iran and Syria to co­or­di­nate ef­forts to com­bat IS. —AP

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