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Syrian army pushes extremists away from key highway

By AFP - Feb 12,2020 - Last updated at Feb 12,2020

Children clad in blankets, sit in the back of a truck on a road near the town of Al Ghazawiya as they flee pro-Syrian forces attacks on the western countryside of Aleppo, to seek refuge in safer areas near the Turkish border on Tuesday (AFP photo)

BEIRUT/ ISTANBUL — The Syrian army on Wednesday pushed on with its offensive in the country's northwest, securing areas along a key national highway they seized, as tensions spiralled with Turkey which supports rebel groups.

The Syrian army has made major inroads in the last opposition-held area in the northwest since December, seizing a string of towns and villages from rebels and fighters in the west of Aleppo province since Tuesday night, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and Al Watan newspaper. 

Hours after completely retaking the vital M5 highway linking the country's four largest cities, they cleared all areas directly west of the road in Aleppo province of rebels and extremists.

"Areas adjacent to the M5 from the west in Aleppo province are now under regime control", observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.

The M5 links the capital Damascus to the second city of Aleppo, and has been a key target for the government as it seeks to rekindle a moribund economy.

Its recapture will secure Aleppo, the country's former industrial hub, which still comes under sporadic rocket fire from holdout rebel groups.

Syria's last major opposition pocket, which is home to three million people, is dominated by extremists of the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham alliance and their rebel allies.

Meanwhile, Turkey's president accused Russia of committing "massacres" in its support of the Syrian government on Wednesday, escalating a war of words as more Turkish reinforcements arrived on the ground.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to strike Syrian forces "everywhere" if its soldiers come under renewed attack, but Russia hit back and accused the Turks of failing to "neutralise terrorists" in the northwestern province of Idlib.

Turkey has shored up its positions in recent days in Idlib — the last rebel bastion in Syria — with hundreds of vehicles carrying artillery and soldiers.

And a new convoy of Turkish armoured vehicles arrived on Wednesday in the town of Binnish, northeast of Idlib city, in a new deployment, an AFP correspondent said.

Turkish officials say they have lost 14 soldiers in the past nine days and claim to have killed scores of Syrian government troops.

"The army, backed by Russian forces and Iran-backed militants, are continuously attacking civilians, committing massacres and shedding blood," Erdogan told a meeting of his ruling party in parliament.

He said Turkey would do "whatever necessary" to push Syrian forces back behind the 12 observation posts it set up in Idlib under the Sochi deal.

"I hereby declare that we will strike Syrian forces everywhere from now on regardless of the Sochi deal if any tiny bit of harm comes to our soldiers at observation posts or elsewhere," he added.

In return, Russia accused Turkey of failing to honour the 2018 deal, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying the Turkish side "had taken upon itself an obligation to neutralise terrorist groups" in Idlib.

But "all these groups are mounting an attack on the Syrian army from Idlib and are acting aggressively towards Russian military installations," he added.


'Differing interpretations' 


Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova dismissed Erdogan's claims of attacks on civilians, telling journalists: "We have differing interpretations from Turkey."

Under the bilateral agreements, radical groups were required to withdraw from a demilitarised zone in the Idlib region held by an array of rebels.

The Russian defence ministry also blamed the crisis in Idlib on "Turkish colleagues' failure to fulfil their obligations on separating fighters from the moderate opposition from terrorists."

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan spoke by phone on Wednesday, with the Kremlin urging Ankara to implement the Sochi deal.

The Turkish presidency confirmed the call but did not provide details.

Erdogan's threats also prompted an angry response from the Syrian government, accusing the Turkish leader of being "disconnected from reality".

"The head of the Turkish government comes with empty... statements only issued by a person disconnected from reality," state news agency SANA quoted a source at the foreign ministry as saying.

A Russian delegation including military and intelligence officials held two rounds of talks in Ankara this week, but no concrete agreement emerged.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said a Turkish delegation would now go to Moscow "in the next few days".

"Continuing to work with Russia, we are working to secure a lasting ceasefire. But even if nothing results from this, our determination is clear and we will do what is necessary," he said.

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