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Syrian troops reach gates of key rebel-held air base

Members of the Syrian civil defense, known as the White Helmets, gather at a street attacked by Russian airstrikes, in Maarat al-Nuaman town, Idlib province, Syria, according to information provided on Jan. 3, 2018.

EDLIB MEDIA CENTER/AP

By BASSEM MROUE | Associated Press | Published: January 10, 2018

BEIRUT — Syrian pro-government forces reached a sprawling air base controlled by rebels since 2015 on Wednesday, the target of a wide-ranging offensive in the northwestern Idlib province.

Recapturing the Abu Zuhour air base has been one of the main goals of the government offensive launched in late October. The operations also aim to secure the road linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops were engaged in fierce fighting with al-Qaida-linked militants and other insurgents just outside Abu Zuhour.

The government offensive in the region has displaced tens of thousands of people, who have fled toward areas close to the Turkish border.

The push into Idlib province, the largest remaining territory held by rebels in Syria, is the deepest by the government since it lost much of the area three years ago. The province is covered by a de-escalation agreement reached last year between Russia and Iran, which back President Bashar Assad, and Turkey, which supports the opposition.

The U.N. human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein expressed "grave concern" over the situation in Idlib, which is home to more than 2.6 million Syrians, including more than 1.1 million who fled fighting elsewhere in the country.

Zeid also condemned the upsurge in civilian casualties in the suburbs of Damascus known as eastern Ghouta, stressing that all parties are obliged under international law to distinguish between lawful military targets and civilians.

On Wednesday, more than two dozen people were killed in the government bombardment of eastern Ghouta and rebel shelling of the capital itself.

"The suffering of the people of Syria knows no end," Zeid said in a statement about eastern Ghouta, where nearly 400,000 people are living under government siege.

"In Idlib, ground attacks and airstrikes have escalated as a rapidly-moving government offensive gains momentum, jeopardizing the safety of hundreds of thousands of civilians," said Zeid.

He said at least 85 civilians, including 21 women and 30 children, have been killed and at least 183 wounded in eastern Ghouta since Dec. 31.

The push toward Abu Zuhour came as the opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported several explosions in the coastal province of Latakia, an Assad stronghold. The Observatory said the blasts were the result of explosions in an arms depot east of Latakia.

State media did not report any blasts in the area.

In Moscow, the Russian military urged its Turkish counterparts to tighten monitoring of the opposition in northern Syria in the wake of a drone attack on Russian military bases in the country.

Russia's Defense Ministry said its forces repelled a series of drone attacks Saturday, adding that out of the 13 drones involved, seven were shot down and six were forced to land without inflicting any damage.

The official military daily Krasnaya Zvezda said the ministry sent letters to the Turkish military asking it to deploy observers to Idlib to ensure that rebels don't launch more attacks.

Russia entered the civil war in 2015 to bolster government forces, helping them to secure a series of victories against the Islamic State group as well as mainstream rebels.

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Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.
 

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