Feb 18, 2015 11:37 AM

Syrian rebels regain ground lost near Aleppo

The Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) Syrian rebels on Wednesday regained much of the territory north of the city of Aleppo lost to government troops in fierce fighting the previous day in clashes that left more than 100 dead on both sides, activists said.

The violence came as U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said he received a government commitment to suspend airstrikes on the city of Aleppo for six weeks, which would allow a proposed U.N. plan to "freeze" hostilities in the country's largest city to be tested.

De Mistura briefed the Security Council late Tuesday on his efforts to find a solution to Syria's civil war, which has killed more than 220,000 people. The envoy said he will return to Syria "as soon as possible" to assess whether the government's commitment is possible and to announce a start date.

An activist in Aleppo said most rebel factions will abide by a truce if the government stops airstrikes and releases detainees, starting with female prisoners. Ahmad Hamed said via Skype that the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, which has a small presence in the city, is not expected to abide by the plan.

The Islamic State group is about 30 kilometers northeast of the city.

"The most important thing for the opposition is a cease in the (government's) barrel bombs campaign in Aleppo," Hamed said, referring to large canisters packed with explosives and metal scraps that the Syrian army drops regularly from the air, causing widespread damage and casualties.

Another activist in Aleppo, Bahaa Halaby, said Syrian troops were trying to besiege rebel-held areas before any freeze goes into effect.

"The regime wants to implement the initiative after advancing on the ground," Halaby said via Skype. "The regime says it wants dialogue then attacks rebel positions."

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Turkey-based activist Bari Abdellatif said rebels regained control of the villages of Ratyan and Dweir Zeytoun early Wednesday. The Observatory says 70 troops and 86 rebels were killed in Tuesday's fighting.

The Observatory and Hamed, the Aleppo-based activist, said fighting is now concentrated in the village of Bashkoy, just north of Aleppo. They said rebels were fighting against Syrian troops backed by members of Lebanon's Hezbollah group.

An amateur video released by rebels showed the bodies of some 25 Syrian soldiers and pro-government gunmen in Aleppo's northern suburb of Mallah lying in a muddy open field.

The video appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting of the events.

The Observatory and the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV said some 30 Syrian soldiers were able to reach the besieged, predominantly Shiite village of Zahraa north of Aleppo for the first time since 2012.

Hamed denied that troops were able to reach Zahraa, adding that the village and nearby Nubul are still encircled by rebels.

Also Wednesday, Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV reported that one of its producers, Hassan Abdullah, was killed "while performing his professional and jihadi duties" in Aleppo. Al-Manar said Abdullah was working on a documentary about Aleppo, where he was wounded and later died.

Al-Manar said Abdullah had filmed past Hezbollah operations against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon prior to the 2000 withdrawal.


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