ISIS retakes Syrian town, militants threaten truce

Al-Qaeda affiliate and allied rebels pushed offensives threaten a truce ahead of peace talks, while ISIS retakes town from rebels

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ISIS has retaken a northern town along Syria’s border with Turkey just days after losing it to rebel forces and allied militants, Syrian activists said Monday as UN envoy to Syria stressed on the importance of maintaining cessation of hostilities with the Syrian foreign minister.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Today TV station say the ISIS extremists captured al-Rai early on Monday morning after intense fighting for the frontier town.

Al-Rai is strategically located on the border with Turkey, serving as the ISIS’s access point to supply lines. It also sits along the road to the ISIS stronghold in Aleppo province.

ISIS lost the town on Thursday after an offensive by rebels and militant groups allied with them, including al-Qaeda's branch in Syria known as the Nusra Front.

Syria's al-Qaeda affiliate and allied rebels pushed offensives around northern, central and coastal Syria on Monday, triggering a spike in violence that could threaten a truce ahead of peace talks, a monitoring group said.

The Russian military General Staff said on Monday that al-Nusra militants are massing around the Syrian city of Aleppo and are planning a large-scale offensive.

Sergei Rudskoy, head of the General Staff’s main operations command, said the militants were planning to cut off the road between Aleppo and the Syrian capital of Damascus.

The ISIS group also took back control of the town of al-Rai near Turkey, which rival rebels had captured last week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Neither the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front nor ISIS are included in a truce brokered by the United States and Russia that came into force on February 27.

But the fact that rebels are fighting alongside al-Nusra in such a broad offensive, while regime forces push back, has sparked concerns over the durability of the shaky truce.

"Al-Nusra and allied rebel groups are waging three synchronized offensives" on front lines in Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

So far, they have seized a hilltop in Latakia province, the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad's Alawite sect, the group said. "This is the offensive that al-Nusra warned it would carry out several weeks ago," Abdel Rahman said.

He was referring to a threat issued by the militants group when President Vladimir Putin, a key backer of Assad's regime, announced the partial pullout of Russian troops from Syria last month.

A military source confirmed that an offensive was under way.

"Armed groups are trying to attack some military positions in Latakia and Hama provinces, but they have not succeeded in making any advances," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Further north, rival militant group ISIS took back the town of Al-Rai, their key supply route from neighboring Turkey, the Observatory said.

Rebels fighting ISIS had taken Al-Rai last week following two days of clashes.

"The fact that the rebels could not hold on to Al-Rai shows that it is impossible to maintain an advance against IS without adequate air cover," Abdel Rahman said.

The latest violence came ahead of a new round of peace talks in Geneva on April 13, which will see indirect negotiations between government and opposition delegations.

On Monday, the UN peace envoy to Syria said in Damascus that an upcoming round of negotiations in Geneva aimed at ending the country’s five-year war would be “crucially important.”

“The Geneva talks’ next phase are crucially important because we will be focusing in particular on the political transition, on governance and constitutional principles,” Staffan de Mistura told reporters after meeting Foreign Minister Walid Muallem.

“We hope and plan to make them constructive and we plan to make them concrete,” the envoy said.

Scheduled to resume on April 13, the Geneva talks are aimed at ending a conflict that has killed more than 270,000 people and forced millions to flee their homes since it erupted in March 2011.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution in December which paved the way for the talks and called for elections in Syria to be held 18 months after a transitional government is agreed.

The fate of President Assad is a major sticking point, however. While the opposition insists Assad can play no role in a future transitional government, the regime says voters should decide his fate.

According to state news agency SANA, Muallem confirmed the government delegation was ready for the next round of peace talks.

"Neither al-Nusra nor ISIS have an interest in the ceasefire or a peaceful solution to Syria's war - because should the war end, they would no longer have a role," Abdel Rahman said.

Syria's conflict erupted in March 2011 with anti-government protests but has since evolved into a multi-front war drawing in regional powers.

(With agencies)

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