Syrian insurgents in counteroffensive in northwestern area
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Syrian insurgents in counteroffensive in northwestern area

Relief group says hundreds of civilians fleeing fighting arrive daily in crowded Idlib province

Opposition fighters prepare ammunition in the al-Mushrifa area, near the town of Khan Sheikun in Syria's northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib, during ongoing clashes with government forces, on January 2, 2018.  (OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP)
Opposition fighters prepare ammunition in the al-Mushrifa area, near the town of Khan Sheikun in Syria's northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib, during ongoing clashes with government forces, on January 2, 2018. (OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP)

BEIRUT — Syrian insurgent groups launched a counteroffensive Thursday against government forces advancing toward a major rebel-held airbase in the country’s northwest, capturing several villages and taking prisoners, opposition groups said.

State media said the attack was repelled.

The push by several factions, including the al-Qaeda-linked Levant Liberation Committee, started overnight. By Thursday morning, it had slowed the government offensive toward the Abu Zuhour airbase that has been held by rebels since 2015.

Recapturing the airbase has been a key government goal since late October and Syrian forces have captured some 160 villages since they first launched the offensive. The operations also aim to secure the road linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest.

The fighting has displaced an estimated 100,000 people who have fled north toward safer areas close to the border with Turkey.

Idlib province, the largest remaining rebel-held territory in Syria, is packed with civilians, many of whom have fled there from fighting in other areas across Syria.

A statement Thursday by the International Rescue Committee said it received hundreds of newly displaced people from the southeast of the province in the past few days, joining thousands who fled over the past month.

Many of the newly displaced brought only the belongings they could carry, the committee said, adding that one mother of twin babies recounted the initial panic of fleeing the airstrikes. The woman was so frightened, she initially left one of her children behind.

“We couldn’t think properly. The fear affected our brains,” the IRC quoted her as saying. The baby was unharmed, she added.

The IRC said nearly two-thirds of the displaced in Idlib are living in makeshift tents that are unable to withstand winter conditions while others live in abandoned or partially built homes that have well water but no toilets.

The Aamaq media arm of the extremist Islamic State group reported Thursday that its fighters are clashing with Syrian troops on the eastern edges of Idlib, and released a video purporting to show four soldiers it claimed to have captured.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed insurgents have retaken several villages from government troops and said 11 pro-government fighters were captured. The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman said 16 insurgents were killed in the fighting but didn’t have a figure for government troops.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops repelled the attack, adding that the militants suffered losses.

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