Syria rebel gains as UN raps govt evacuation `strategy`

AFP| Last Updated: Sep 02, 2016, 05:32 AM IST

Rebels and jihadists battled pro-government forces in the central Syrian province of Hama Thursday as the country`s UN envoy warned that more people could be forcibly evacuated from towns besieged by the regime.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said at least 25 civilians, including children, were killed in government air strikes as fighting raged in Hama, south of the opposition-held Idlib province.

Anti-government groups, which include jihadists and Sunni Islamists, launched an offensive in Hama on Monday aimed at retaking its airport, where regime helicopters fly regular sorties against opposition fighters.

"They are about 10 kilometres (six miles) from the airport" in Hama, Syria`s fourth-largest city, said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman, whose group relies on a broad network of sources inside Syria.

The rebels are also likely seeking to ease pressure on opposition fighters in the battleground second city of Aleppo by distracting regime forces ahead of mooted peace talks, which the United Nations is aiming to restart after a "political initiative" this month.

Syria`s UN envoy Staffan de Mistura censured the Syrian government`s "strategy" of forcing inhabitants of Daraya -- a rebel-held town near Damascus that endured a four-year siege -- and warned other towns were likely to experience the same fate.

De Mistura said there were "indications that after Daraya we may have other Darayas," adding that "there is clearly a strategy at the moment to move from Daraya" to other besieged areas "in a similar pattern".

Hundreds of fighters and their families were bused out of Daraya last week, with other civilians transferred to government territory near Damascus for resettlement.

The Syrian army has said it is in complete control of the town, from where roughly 8,000 civilians were still due to be evacuated.

De Mistura pointed to worrying signs around the surrounded towns of Waer and Moadamiyat al-Sham, whose residents make up some of the 590,000 people that the UN says lives under siege in Syria -- mostly by government forces. The Observatory said Thursday that the rebel alliance in Hama seized control of 14 populated areas, mainly in the north of the province, including the towns of Halfaya and Suran.

The alliance also took a military base near the Maardes area, seizing artillery shells and rockets.

They were also threatening the historic Christian town of Mahrada to the west, which is home to one of the country`s largest power stations.

Hama province is of vital strategic importance to President Bashar al-Assad, separating opposition forces in Idlib from Damascus to the south and the regime`s coastal heartlands to the west.

Syria`s conflict has killed more than 290,000 people and displaced millions. Successive rounds of peace talks have failed to stem the bloodshed.

De Mistura said he was planning to present "an important political initiative" for Syria even as the prospect of renewed peace negotiations remains dim.

He refused to provide any details on what the political initiative might be, but said he hoped it would help the UN General Assembly "to look the problems in Syria in the eye" when it next meets on September 13.Syria`s civil war, which started with peaceful anti-government protests more than five years ago, has degenerated into a multi-front conflict and contributed to a migrant crisis that has seen hundreds of thousands of people seeking to enter Europe.

The plight of Syrians fleeing fighting was captured in stark terms last year with a photograph of the lifeless body of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach.

Aylan`s father, speaking on the eve of the anniversary of the tragedy, called for the war to end.

"The politicians said after the deaths in my family: Never again!" Abdullah Kurdi, 41, told Germany`s Bild daily.

"Everyone claimed they wanted to do something because of the photo that touched them so much. But what is happening now? People are still dying and nobody is doing anything about it."

Syria`s war has seen superpowers dragged in and neighbouring countries intervene in the fight.

Turkey, which has long opposed Assad, said Thursday it had made gains against the Islamic State group after launching an offensive on the jihadists in northern Syria last week.

The Turkish army said it had cleared "terrorist elements" out of three villages west of Jarabulus -- a border town taken from IS militants by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels last week.