Syrian troops advance near Golan Heights city
BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces captured Saturday two rebel-held areas on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights after days of intense fighting near a decades-old cease-fire line between Syria and Israel, state TV said.
The violence came as the U.N. Security Council unanimously demanded immediate access everywhere in Syria to deliver humanitarian aid to millions of people in desperate need.
Russia and China, strong supporters of the Syrian government, joined the rest of the council Saturday in sending a strong message to President Bashar Assad's government that civilians caught in the three-year conflict must be helped.
The resolution doesn't threaten sanctions but it does express the council's intention to take "further steps" if the resolution isn't implemented. The government and rebels hold several areas in the country under siege, leaving tens of thousands of people suffering from lack of food and medicine.
The Syrian TV report, citing a military official, said troops and pro-government gunmen known as National Defense Forces captured the areas of Rasm al-Hour and Rasm al-Sad, south of the town of Quneitra. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory For Human Rights confirmed troops were on the offensive, adding that the air force was taking part in the attack.
The Syrian army has been reinforcing its positions in Quneitra as part of efforts to drive rebels from the area, which is near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, since the opposition named a new military chief on Monday.
Brig. Gen. Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir hails from southern Syria and was an army commander in Quneitra until 2012, when he defected to the opposition.
In December, the U.N. Security Council strongly condemned all military activity on the Golan Heights by the Syrian army and opposition fighters, warning that it could "jeopardize the cease-fire" between Syria and Israel.
The council then approved a resolution extending the mandate of the U.N. peacekeeping force until the end of June. The force, known as UNDOF, was established after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Israel occupied the Golan Heights during the 1967 Mideast war and annexed it in 1981.
Also Saturday, Syrian activists said Kurdish fighters captured a northeastern town near the Iraqi border after days of combat with members of an al-Qaida breakaway group.
The Observatory and a Syria-based activist who identified himself as Salar al-Kurdi said members of the so-called People's Protection Units captured Tel Brak earlier in the day. It was the latest gain by Kurds in almost a year of fighting with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"There are few civilians in the areas since many of them fled because of the fighting over the past months," al-Kurdi said via Skype.
The units are dominated by members of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, Syria's most powerful Kurdish group. Since mid-2013, Kurdish fighters have been on the offensive capturing wide areas in northeastern Syria from the Islamic State.
The Tel Brak battle left some 19 people dead, of which 16 were Islamic State fighters, the Observatory said.
Kurds are the largest ethnic minority in Syria, making up more than 10 percent of the country's 23 million people. They are centered in the impoverished northeastern province of Hassakeh, wedged between the borders of Turkey and Iraq. The capital Damascus and Syria's largest city, Aleppo, also have several predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods.