Syria frees 16 villages in Hama, ‘kills 2,200 terrorists’
Heavy clashes are underway between the Syrian army and Takfiri militants near the western city of Hama where about 2,200 terrorists have been killed in less than a week, the official SANA news agency says.
Those killed in six days of counter-terrorism operations in the northern countryside of Hama were members of the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham terror group, formerly known as al-Nusra Front, the news agency reported Thursday.
During the offensive, army units, backed by the air force, carried out strikes on the positions of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham terrorists and their affiliates in the area.
There were a number of senior militant commanders among those killed.
It was also reported that the Syrian soldiers had retaken the Arza town as well as Bazam, al-Samsam and al-Shaihat Hills in the city’s suburbs.
On Friday, the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian armed forces have retaken 16 villages briefly lost to militants last week.
The operations are being backed up by Russian airpower.
Due to their brutality, the Takfiris were excluded from an all-Syria ceasefire agreement, which has been in place since last December.
Amid the chaos around Hama, other militants have in recent days attacked government positions around the city, prompting clashes with army forces there in defiance of the truce.
Hama fighting ‘mere game of influence’
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the attacks by “radical armed groups” near Hama have been provoked by a “number of external players” who are involved in “a game of influence” in Syria.
“They launched a huge offensive now in the northern part of the Hama province and they basically coordinate with Jabhat al-Nusra under its new name,” Lavrov said in an interview with the US bi-monthly magazine The National Interest published on the Russian Foreign Ministry website on Thursday.
“It’s the fight for influence on the battleground, and this is unfortunate. We don’t need this now. What we need is to strengthen the cessation of hostilities and to support strongly the political process in Geneva, concentrated on the new constitution,” he added.
The developments come amid ongoing UN-led peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition groups in Geneva, Switzerland, aimed at ending six years of violence in the Arab state.
The foreign-backed opposition wants the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of any solution to the Syria crisis.
Damascus, however, argues that it is up to the Syrian people to decide Assad’s political future, calling for the talks to focus on fighting terrorism as a priority.
Opposition: US sending contradicting messages
On Thursday, Farah al-Atassi, a member of the opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, criticized the US, a longtime supporter of anti-Damascus militants, for its U-turn on the policy of backing Assad’s removal.
“It’s unfortunate that we are hearing such contradicting messages from the U.S. administration. We would like to see a more decisive role and leadership from the United States on the Syrian file,” said the opposition member.
The US used to stiffly oppose the continued incumbency of Assad.
However, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Thursday most that Assad’s fate had to be decided by the Syrian people. In similar comments, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley also said Thursday that the priority was no longer “getting Assad out.”
Speaking in Geneva, Atassi further said that the US had to put pressure on Russia, a Damascus ally, and see the Syrian opposition as a reliable partner against “terrorism.”