Syrian insurgents in counteroffensive in northwestern area

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

The push by several factions, including the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee, slowed the government offensive toward the Abu Zuhour air base that has been held by rebels since 2015.

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

The U.N.’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock, in Damascus, said he was “deeply worried” about civilians caught up in the violence in Idlib. The fighting has displaced an estimated 100,000 people who have fled north toward safer areas close to the border with Turkey.

Lowcock, on his first mission to Syria since his appointment last year, called for agreements to allow the U.N. and other relief organizations to reach 2.5 million Syrians in need of aid on a regular basis. They are Syrians in areas the U.N. classifies as “besieged” or “hard-to-reach.” The U.N. delivered aid to an average 7.5 million people each month last year.

The under-secretary-general said he was “particularly concerned about the fate of the besieged people of (Eastern) Ghouta,” a pocket of the opposition in the suburbs of Damascus. Government forces have waged a punishing aerial and artillery campaign on eastern Ghouta after rebels launched an attack on a nearby military base in November. The bombardment has killed 170 civilians over the last two weeks, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

Attacks by Syrian and Russian forces on eastern Ghouta damaged or destroyed four schools and killed eight children in late October and early November 2017, according to a new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch. Russia is a key military backer of President Bashar Assad.

“Syrian and Russian forces appear to view the lives of children in Eastern Ghouta as utterly disposable,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Government forces had largely beaten back the counter-offensive by militants in Idlib by evening Thursday, the Observatory reported. The…

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