Syria strikes on jihadists spike during truce

2016-03-14 19:57
A general view taken from the al-Qaboun suburb of Damascus shows damaged buildings in the nearby Jobar neighbourhood. (Abd Doumany , AFP)

A general view taken from the al-Qaboun suburb of Damascus shows damaged buildings in the nearby Jobar neighbourhood. (Abd Doumany , AFP)

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Beirut - Since a ceasefire came into force in Syria, the army and its Russian ally have refocused their air power on targeting jihadist factions, a monitoring group said on Monday.

The truce began on February 27 and does not cover the fight against jihadist groups like Islamic State and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Nusra Front.

"In agreement with Russia, the Syrian regime is focusing its capabilities on frontlines with the jihadists," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights director Rami Abdel Rahman.

"In the fortnight before the truce, warplanes staged about 3 000 strikes and barrel bomb attacks in opposition-held areas. That number has gone down to about 325 since February 27," Abdel Rahman said.

"By contrast, the number of air strikes against jihadist areas has soared," he added.

Overnight Sunday to Monday, Syrian warplanes and helicopters pounded ISIS-held areas around the ancient city of Palmyra in the east of the country, the Observatory said.

Fighting raged in the area, pitting ISIS against army troops backed by pro-Damascus militia, the Britain-based group said, adding that at least six jihadists were killed.

ISIS seized Palmyra, a Unesco World Heritage Site known as the "Pearl of the Desert", last May, sending shockwaves across the world.

"The regime is trying to take back Palmyra. But troops can't advance quickly because the area is exposed, and ISIS could easily stage ambushes there," Abdel Rahman told AFP.

"So they need to go slowly," he said.

Meanwhile in the coastal province of Latakia, army troops and loyalist militia led by Russian officers battled Al-Nusra fighters allied to non-jihadist rebel factions, said the Observatory.

"It is very hard to implement the ceasefire in areas where Al-Nusra is fighting alongside rebel groups, because it is impossible to track who exactly is honouring the ceasefire there," Abdel Rahman said.

"At the same time, the regime side will use Al-Nusra's presence as a justification to keep fighting."

Civilian suffering 

In Latakia, the heartland of President Bashar Assad's Alawite sect and home to the Hmeymim Russian airbase, the army and its allies are trying to retake the strategic Kabbaneh hilltop near Turkey, the Observatory said.

Kabbaneh is the rebels' last strategic hilltop in the western province.

Elsewhere, the army hit the Marj area near Damascus, where Al-Nusra is also the main fighting force, with several missiles, as clashes raged.

Civilians caught in the fighting are still paying the highest price, however.

"The regime is threatening to besiege Deir al-Assafir and other areas near Marj, which are home to about 2 500 families," Abdel Rahman said.

Ceasefire violations have nonetheless been committed every day since the ceasefire came into force.

According to an AFP count based on Russian defence ministry statements, the truce has been violated 208 times.

The highest number of violations took place on Sunday, with 29 breaches recorded by the Russian count.

Read more on:    isis  |  unesco  |  syria

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