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SYRIA - Dec 21-Syrian Army Makes Strategic Gains In North.

The Syrian army, backed by Russian airstrikes, captured a rebel stronghold in the northern province of Aleppo Dec 20, as rescue workers and residents said suspect Russian warplanes killed scores of people in the center of rebel-held city of Idlib. State news agency SANA said that army units and other pro-regime forces had seized control of Khan Tuman and neighboring farms. Khan Tuman was the scene of fierce clashes between loyalist forces, including fighters of Lebanon's Hezbollah group, and Islamist rebels, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Syrian and Russian aircraft carried out at least 40 strikes, it said. The Observatory said 16 Islamists were killed but it did not have details of casualties on the pro-government sides. The advances brought the army only a few kilometers from the major rebel-controlled Aleppo-Damascus highway, whose capture would be a big boost to the Syrian army. The Syrian military has since mid-October recaptured several areas in the north of the country from Islamist forces, including Al-Qaeda's Syrian branch, the Nusra Front. Elsewhere, airstrikes believed to have been carried out by Russian warplanes killed 43 of people in Idlib, northwest Syria, according to rescue workers and residents. They said at least six strikes had hit a busy market place in the heart of the city, several government buildings and residential areas. Over 150 people were wounded with some serious cases sent to hospitals in Turkey. Footage on social media and the pro-opposition Orient TV station showed ambulances rushing with injured civilians through an area where people searched for survivors in debris of collapsed buildings. One local resident, Sameh al-Muazin, said he had seen mangled bodies in the main Jalaa street of the city, adding that people feared a further round of intensive bombing. "Everyone is afraid that this is just the beginning", he said. Idlib, the capital of a northwestern province of the same name, became an important center for rebel-controlled northwest Syria after it was captured earlier this year by a coalition of Islamist insurgent groups known as the Army of Conquest, which includes the Nusra Front. Residents say they distinguish Russian planes that fly at high altitudes in sorties from Syrian helicopters that mainly drop indiscriminate barrel bombs at much lower heights. Human Rights Watch charged Dec 20 that government forces and their Russian allies have been making "extensive" use of cluster munitions.The New York-based rights watchdog said that it had documented the use of cluster munitions against rebels on 20 occasions since Sept. 30. HRW "collected detailed information about attacks in nine locations that have killed at least 35 civilians, including five women and 17 children, and injured dozens", the report said. Idlib city was spared the intensified aerial bombing campaign in rural areas after a United Nations-brokered cease-fire deal was reached in September. The deal allowed for the withdrawal of rebel fighters holed up in a border village near Lebanon in return for the evacuation of civilians from two Shiite towns of Kufraya and al-Foua under rebel siege in Idlib province. The deal included a tacit understanding under which Idlib city also fell under the cease-fire arrangements, allowing thousands of displaced from northern Syria to shelter there. In a sign the cease-fire had broken, one source said rebels had begun to shell the two towns again. Residents reported tens of families fleeing with some of their belongings to the safety of makeshift camps along the Turkish border. On the political front, the Arab League welcomed the roadmap to end the Syrian war and vowed to support efforts to implement a cease-fire. The roadmap, approved unanimously by the UN Security Council Friday, foresees talks between the rebels and the regime, and a rapid truce.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Recorder
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Dec 23, 2015
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