Syrian army bombs northern rebel town, killing five

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Syrian government forces bombed a strategic rebel town in the country’s north for the third straight day Saturday, pounding it with airstrikes that killed at least five people, activists said.

President Bashar al-Assad’s troops in recent weeks have seized the momentum in the civil war, now in its third year. Regime forces have been on offensive against rebels on several fronts, including in the northern Idlib province along the border with Turkey.

In Idlib, government forces this week besieged the town of Saraqeb, hitting it with rockets, tank fire and air raids, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Saturday, the Observatory said military aircraft dropped at least 15 makeshift bombs, known as barrel bombs, on the town. The bombs are made of hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of explosives stuffed into barrels.

Meanwhile, airstrikes by fighter jets killed at least five people, including three children, said the Observatory, which relies on reports from a network of activists on the ground.

The number of casualties was likely to rise because many of the people have been buried in the rubble of buildings that collapsed in the shelling, the group said.

Assad’s troops are in firm control of the provincial capital, also called Idlib, while dozens of rebel brigades control the surrounding countryside. Clashes between the warring sides have been fierce as Assad's troops try to push opposition fighters further away from the city.

With a population of 40,000 people, Saraqeb is Idlib’s second-largest urban center. It has been under opposition’s control for more than a year and it is strategically important for both sides because of its location along the highway that links Syria's largest city, Aleppo, with the capital, Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.

The town also connects Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub that has been carved up between government- and rebel-held areas for the past year, with the coastal city of Latakia. That city is a stronghold of Syria’s ruling Alawite sect, which includes the president’s family.

Opposition fighters have been using the highway to ferry their own supplies and have been launching guerrilla attacks on army convoys traveling between military bases in Idlib province and Aleppo.

Observatory director Rami Abdul Rahman said the army’s latest offensive on Saraqeb could be a push to set the stage for an eventual offensive on Aleppo. But the rebels have kept their ground at least 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Saraqeb, forcing the regime to rely on its air power.

Syria’s state news agency said the army fought “terrorists” around Idlib province, destroying their hideouts and makeshift weapons factories in several villages and towns near the provincial capital, including in Saraqeb. Several fighters belonging to the radical Islamic group Jabhat al-Nusra were killed in the fighting, the report said.

In Cairo, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said the new military-backed interim government will reevaluate its policy toward Syria following the ouster of the President Mohammed Mursi. His Islamist-dominated government cut diplomatic relations with Syria and supported Assad’s opponents, offering Syrians, seeking refuge in Egypt favorable conditions.

The Observatory said more than 60 opposition fighters were killed in violence that has raged in the northeastern province of Hassakeh this week. Pro-government Kurdish fighters captured a major checkpoint Saturday morning in the province after intense clashes with al-Qaeda-linked rebels, the Observatory said.

Kurdish gunmen captured mortars, jeeps with heavy machine guns mounted on them as well as large amounts of weapons at the checkpoint that sits on a main road intersection in Hassakeh, the group said.

The Kurdish forces, which back Assad, have fought rebels from radical Islamic groups in the northern region for months now.

Those killed in the fighting include 19 Kurdish fighters of the pro-government Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, as well as 35 al-Qaeda-linked fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra or Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Observatory said.

PYD spokesman Nawaf Khalil told the U.S.-funded Radio Sawa that Kurds plan to set up an administration in the predominantly Kurdish region to run its affairs.

“Is it possible for an area twice the size of Lebanon to remain for the next 10 years without an interim administration and without special constitutions for the Kurds?” Khalil asked in remarks broadcast Saturday. “We need a process that makes us administer the region in a better way.”

Last year, as the fighting intensified in the northern province of Aleppo, Assad’s forces were stretched thin and pulled back from mainly Kurdish towns and villages near the Turkish border, ceding control to armed Kurdish fighters.

Since then, Syria’s Kurdish minority carved out a once unthinkable degree of independence in their areas, creating their own police forces, issuing their own license plates and exuberantly going public with their language and culture.

Kurds, the largest ethnic minority in Syria, make up more than 10 percent of the country’s 23 million people and have seen their loyalties split in the conflict between pro- and anti-Assad groups. The minority is centered in the poor northeastern regions of Hassakeh and Qamishli, wedged in between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. Damascus and Aleppo also have several predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods.

More than 93,000 people have been killed since the Syria crisis started in March 2011, according to the United Nations, as largely peaceful protests against Assad's rule. It escalated into a civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.

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