Mil­i­tants kill eight Syria troops near truce zone


Mil­i­tants have killed at least eight Syr­ian govern­ment troops near a planned buf­fer zone around the coun­try’s last ma­jor rebel bas­tion, a mon­i­tor said yes­ter­day.

The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said the at­tack took place late on Fri­day in the north of Hama province near the planned buf­fer zone around rebel-held ter­ri­tory in neigh­bour­ing Idlib.

The at­tack was led by fight­ers of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al­liance led by Syria’s for­mer Al Qaeda branch which is the dom­i­nant force in Idlib, the Bri­tain­based mon­i­tor­ing group said.

“An as­sault by HTS tar­geted a Syr­ian regime po­si­tion on the out­skirts of the demil­i­tarised zone” and was fol­lowed by clashes in which eight regime forces were killed, Ob­ser­va­tory chief Rami Ab­del Rah­man said. Two mil­i­tants also died. The demil­i­tarised zone was an­nounced by rebel backer Ankara and Da­m­as­cus ally Moscow in Septem­ber to sep­a­rate govern­ment troops from rebel fight­ers in Idlib and ad­ja­cent ar­eas.

Un­der the deal, the rebels were sup­posed to have re­moved all heavy weapons from the buf­fer zone by Oc­to­ber 10 but skir­mishes have con­tin­ued to pit regime forces against mil­i­tants and other in­sur­gents on the ground.

Rebel fac­tions have said they with­drew their heavy weapons from the zone but HTS and other hard­line groups have re­fused to pull out their fight­ers.

The deadly mil­i­tant as­sault came hours af­ter govern­ment troops killed 23 fight­ers of a for­merly US-backed rebel group in­side the planned buf­fer zone.

Idlib and some ad­ja­cent ar­eas are the last ma­jor rebel bas­tion in Syria, where the Rus­sian­backed govern­ment has in re­cent months re­taken much of the ter­ri­tory it had lost since the civil war erupted.

It had threat­ened an as­sault on rebel ter­ri­tory around Idlib, which is home to some 3mn peo­ple, but the truce deal struck by Rus­sia and Tur­key averted it.

Aid or­gan­i­sa­tions had warned that a fully-fledged of­fen­sive on Idlib could spark the worst hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe of the civil war so far.

More than 360,000 peo­ple have been killed and mil­lions dis­placed since the con­flict erupted with the bru­tal re­pres­sion of anti-govern­ment protests in 2011.

Mean­while, the Syr­ian govern­ment has protested to the United Na­tions about an air strike by the US-led coali­tion against Islamic State which it said killed 26 civil­ians in Ha­jin in the eastern Deir al-Zor re­gion, state me­dia re­ported.

Asked about re­ports of air strikes in that area on Fri­day, the coali­tion’s spokesman said it had “suc­cess­fully struck and de­stroyed an ISIS (Islamic State) ob­ser­va­tion post and stag­ing area in Ha­jin, void of civil­ians at the time”. The Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights said 41 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 17 chil­dren, had been killed in two waves of coali­tion air strikes on Fri­day in Ha­jin and the nearby vil­lage of Al-Shafa on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River.

It said the ca­su­al­ties were mostly Iraqi and fam­ily mem­bers of Islamic State fight­ers.

The coali­tion is sup­port­ing the Kur­dish-led Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces in an at­tempt to de­feat Islamic State in the area it con­trols near the bor­der

with Iraq.

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