AP News

Syrian troops battle to retake rebel-held areas


BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government aircraft scattered leaflets over the northern province of Idlib on Wednesday, calling on rebels to hand themselves over and urging foreign fighters to return to their homelands, as regime troops pressed on with the battle to retake areas they had lost to the opposition.

The call came after another bloody day in Syria. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, said 40 civilians and 70 fighters — both regime troops and rebels — were killed in clashes nationwide on Tuesday.

President Bashar Assad's regime has called on opposition fighters in the past to lay down their arms, and it was unlikely Wednesday's call would be heeded, either by Syrians or foreign fighters battling in the province.

"Abandon your weapons and return to your family," said one leaflet, aimed at the foreigner fighters. "You have been tricked," it read, according to a photograph of the leaflet obtained by the Observatory. An Idlib-based activist corroborated the leaflets.

Another leaflet gave instructions to rebels — foreign and local — to approach Syrian government checkpoints slowly and wave the paper in the air in a sign of surrender.

Syria's conflict began in March 2011 with peaceful protests against Assad's rule but escalated into a civil war in response to a brutal government crackdown. Foreign fighters, many of them hardline Islamists seeking to impose their deeply conservative version of Islam, have also swelled the ranks of rebels. The U.N. estimates that some 93,000 people have been killed so far in the civil war.

The battle for the Idlib province is just one of a series of clashes flaring lately as a concerted push by government forces seeks to dislodge rebels who have seized control of large swaths of the country.

The Observatory also reported clashes Wednesday in the northern province of Aleppo, which abuts the Turkish border and serves as a rebel gateway for bringing in weapons and supplies.

There was also fighting in towns on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, and the southern province of Daraa. Syrian troops, alongside fighters from the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group, were encircling the neighborhoods of Khaldiyeh and Bab Houd in the central city of Homs, which rebels have held for the past year.

"The war here is now from building to building. They are trying to take the area a block at a time," said activist Tariq Badrakhan, speaking via Skype from the city. He said Syrian forces were "cleaning" the area of rebel fighters by firing mortar shells at buildings, with the heaviest shelling occurring at dawn.

In Idlib province, rebels have besieged the provincial capital, also called Idlib, over the past two weeks, causing food shortages and price hikes, an activist based in the city, Mohammad Kanaan, said via Skype.

Kanaan said rebels had set up checkpoints, blocking some roads with large rocks and destroying others, and preventing food and other basic supplies from entering, in an effort to force the civilians to leave so they could storm the city.

There have been fuel shortages and prices for basic goods have been rising across Syria, but Kanaan said it was worse in Idlib because of the rebel siege.

"Residents are pleading with the Free Syria Army to loosen their grip, but they are trying to pressure people to leave Idlib," Kanaan said. He said there were few places the civilians could go as the city was already swelled with people who had fled from violence elsewhere, and that government troops often shell nearby rebel-held areas.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have been internally displaced because of the fighting, and the U.N. counts another 1.7 million Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, many of them children.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Humanitarian Chief Valerie Amos warned on a visit to Lebanon that Syrian refugees there could double in number to one million by the year's end if the uprising does not abate.

"By the end of the year, refugees could make up 20 per cent of Lebanon's population," Amos said in a statement. Lebanon has some 4.5 million citizens.

The international community has so far been sluggish in its response to aiding Syrian refuges. Amos said they had only received 15 percent of a $1.7 billion appeal to assist refugees and the communities aiding them.

"If you have thousands of refugees crossing the border every day, it's a huge burden not just on the country but also on the people who are hosting the refugees," Amos said.

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