Rebel stronghold Idlib retaken by Syrian regime


Syrian military forces have recaptured the northern rebel stronghold of Idlib along the border with Turkey, a major base that army defectors had held for months, a pro-government newspaper reported Tuesday. An international rights group said the army is mining the border with Turkey.

Fresh from a monthlong campaign that drove rebels out of another key base in central Homs, President Bashar Assad’s forces launched a siege on the city of Idlib three days ago. The city had been under control of hundreds of fighters for the rebel Free Syrian Army.

There was no immediate confirmation of the report on Idlib and calls to the area were not going through. Witnesses said this week that army defectors in the city have been running out of ammunition.

Many feared the offensive in Idlib could end up like the regime’s campaign against the rebel-held neighborhood of Baba Amr in the city of Homs. Troops besieged and shelled Baba Amr for almost a month before capturing it on March 1.

Also in northern Syria, the activist groups Local Coordination Committees and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported intense clashes between government troops and army defectors in the town of Maaret al-Numan, in Idlib province, on Sunday night.

The LCC said four civilians were killed in government forces shelling while the Observatory said 10 government troops were killed when their checkpoint was attacked by defectors.

In Geneva, the U.N. refugee agency said 230,000 Syrians have fled their homes since the uprising against Assad’s regime began last year. The U.N. says more than 7,500 people have been killed in the past 12 months.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ coordinator for Syria says 30,000 people have already fled to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and “on a daily basis hundreds of people are still crossing into neighboring countries.”

Panos Moumtzis told reporters in Geneva that according to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent at least 200,000 people are also displaced within the country. He said some 110,000 mostly Iraqi refugees living in Syria are meanwhile reporting increased hardship due to rising prices for basic goods.

Earlier this year, Assad’s forces began a major military operation to retake rebel-held areas starting with an attack that recaptured several suburbs of the capital Damascus followed by the offensive in Homs. The operations in Idlib province, of which Idlib is the provincial capital, is the latest.

An amateur video posted online Tuesday but was said to be taken three days ago showed several army tanks from a distance in a major street around Idlib. An activist was heard saying tanks deploy around all parts of Idlib in preparation to storm it.

An international human rights group said Syrian troops have planted landmines along routes used by people fleeing the violence and trying to reach safety in neighboring Turkey. It called on Damascus to stop laying the banned weapons as they will hurt Syrians for years to come.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the mines were planted in the past weeks. HRW, which says the report is based on accounts from witnesses and Syrian deminers, says the landmines have already caused civilian casualties.

“Any use of anti-personnel landmines is unconscionable,” said Steve Goose, Arms Division director at Human Rights Watch. “There is absolutely no justification for the use of these indiscriminate weapons by any country, anywhere, for any purpose.”

There was no immediate comment from Syrian officials on the report.

In November, a Syrian official and witnesses told The Associated Press that Syria planted landmines along parts of its border with Lebanon. The official at the time said the mines aim to prevent arms smuggling.

HRW quoted a former Syrian army deminer as saying that in early February, he visited the border town of Hasanieih and found landmines planted “between the fruit trees three meters (yards) from the border in two parallel lines, each approximately 500 meters (yards) long.”

At the beginning of March, the deminer, together with his cousin and three volunteers, removed approximately 300 Russian-made PMN-2 anti-personnel mines from Hasanieih.

It also quoted a resident of the Syrian border town of Kherbet al-Joz as saying that for 20 days, until March 1, he saw some 50 soldiers accompanied by two large military vehicles putting landmines starting from Kherbet Al-Joz toward two other villages.

“There is a road right on the Turkish side, and they started 20 meters away from it,” he said.