Syrian army bombs key northern rebel town, kills 3

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces bombed a strategic rebel town in the country’s north for the third straight day Saturday, pounding it with airstrikes that killed at least three people, activists said.

President Bashar Assad’s troops have in recent weeks seized the momentum in the civil war, now in its third year, and have been on offensive against rebels on several fronts, including in the northern Idlib province along the border with Turkey.

In Idlib, government forces this week besieged the town of Saraqeb, hitting it with rockets, tanks and air raids, said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On Saturday, the group said military aircraft dropped at least 15 makeshift bombs, known as barrel bombs, on the town. The bombs are made of hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of explosives stuffed into barrels.

Meanwhile, an airstrike by a fighter jet killed at least three people, including two children, said the Observatory, which relies on reports from a network of activists on the ground.

The number of casualties was likely to rise because many of the people have been buried in the rubble of buildings that collapsed in the shelling, the Observatory added.

Assad’s troops are in firm control of the provincial capital, also called Idlib, while dozens of rebel brigades control the surrounding countryside. Clashes between the warring sides have been fierce as Assad’s troops try to push opposition fighters further away from the city.

With a population of 40,000 people, Saraqeb is Idlib’s second largest urban center. It has been under opposition’s control for more than a year and it is strategically important for both sides because of its location along the highway that links Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, with the capital, Damascus, the seat of Assad’s power.

The town also connects Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub that has been carved up between government- and rebel-held areas over the past year, with the coastal city of Latakia. The city is a stronghold of Syria’s ruling Alawite sect, which the president’s family also belongs to.

Opposition fighters have been using the highway to ferry their own supplies and have been launching guerrilla attacks on army convoys traveling between military bases in Idlib province and Aleppo.

The Observatory’s director Rami Abdul Rahman said the army’s latest offensive on Saraqeb could be a push to set the stage for an eventual offensive on Aleppo. But the rebels have kept their ground at least 15 kilometers (9 miles) from Saraqeb, forcing the regime to rely on its air power.

Syria’s state news agency said the army fought “terrorists” around Idlib province, destroying their hideouts and makeshift weapons factories in several villages and towns near the provincial capital, including in Saraqeb. Several “terrorists” belonging to the radical Islamic group Jabhat al-Nusra were killed in the fighting, the report said.

The Syrian government refers to those trying to topple Assad’s regime as terrorists who are acting out a conspiracy orchestrated by the West and the Gulf Arab countries, who back the opposition in the conflict.

More than 93,000 people have been killed since the Syria crisis started in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against Assad’s rule. It escalated into a civil war after opposition supporters took up arms to fight a brutal government crackdown on dissent.

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