ALBERT AJI and SARAH EL DEEB
DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria praised its troops Monday for rapidly taking over rebel-controlled territory in the country’s northwest, vowing to continue to chase armed groups “wherever they are.”
Separately, state media reported that Syrian authorities had uncovered the previous day a mass grave containing nearly 70 bodies in eastern Ghouta, an area outside of the capital that rebel fighters lost control of in April 2018.
The ongoing military advance in northwest Syria came hours after troops consolidated the government’s hold over the key Aleppo province, capturing over 30 villages and hamlets in the western countryside in a single day and securing the provincial capital that had for years remained within range of opposition fire.
Since December, Syrian troops have been on the offensive in the area and the nearby Idlib province, biting bit by bit at the crowded rebel enclave, home to over 3 million people. The offensive displaced more than 800,000 people, sparking one of the largest humanitarian crisis in the nine-year war.
Troops were removing barriers and roadblocks on Monday in villages and districts that were earlier controlled by Syrian rebels, state TV reported. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, reported clashes in Jabal Sheik Akeel, northwest of the city of Aleppo, the provincial capital.
Rescuers and a medical aid worker said airstrikes Monday on Darat Izza, a town still in opposition hands in northwestern Aleppo, put two health facilities out of service. One hospital was directly hit, wounding two staffers, said Mazen Kewara of the Syrian American Medical Society, a group that supports the hospital’s dialysis unit. Footage from the rescue team, Syrian Civil Defense, showed extensive damage. Another airstrike hit close by the other medical facility, some 150 meters (yards) away.
Syrian rebels were driven out of Aleppo city’s eastern quarters in late 2016, which they had controlled for years while battling government forces in charge in the western section. However, rebel groups continued to target government forces from outside the city with mortar rounds. They also controlled large parts of western rural Aleppo, territories that linked them to Idlib province, the opposition’s last major stronghold.
The new advances, along with securing a key highway that ran through rebel territory, are set to facilitate movement between northern and southern Syria, including the city of Aleppo, Syria’s commercial center before the war.
The developments sparked late night celebrations in the city, with state media showing images of residents waving flags and dancing in the streets packed with vehicles.
Gen. Ali Mayhoub, spokesman for the Syrian Armed Forces, said in a televised speech that Syrian troops were continuing their ground advances to “eradicate what is left of terrorist groups” in Syria, congratulating the soldiers for the swift advances in “record time.”
The armed opposition is now squeezed into a shrinking area of nearby Idlib province, where the government is also on the offensive, as well as the sliver of adjacent territory in western Aleppo.
Turkey, which backs the opposition, has sent thousands of troops and equipment into the opposition enclave, in an attempt to stall the Syrian government’s advance. Ankara has also called for an end to the Syrian government offensive. Already home to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, Turkey fears a new wave may overwhelm its borders.
Support from Russia and Iran has enabled Syrian troops to regain control of much of the territories they had lost to armed groups who worked to topple Assad.
Over 400,000 people have been killed and half of Syria’s population displaced since peaceful protests in 2011 turned into a civil war.
Near the capital Damascus, Syrian authorities said Monday that they’d exhumed the previous day nearly 70 bodies of soldiers and civilians from a mass grave in a rural area of eastern Ghouta.
The area, which includes the town of Douma and extends into the capital’s suburbs, was widely destroyed as Syrian troops drove out rebel fighters there two years ago.
Ayman Khallou, a forensic doctor at a military hospital, told Syria’s state news agency that most of the remains found in the mass grave Sunday were handcuffed. He said most of the bodies appeared to have gunshot wounds to the head, while some were strangled. The official provided no immediate evidence to support the claim. Human rights groups blame both sides in the conflict for carrying out atrocities in Syria’s nine-year civil war.
Syrian authorities said the body of a woman was among those found in the grave. Damascus’ military police chief said a tip had led to the discovery of the mass grave in al-Ebb, a farm area southeast of Douma.
The report led to speculation among Syrians that the body could belong to Razan Zaitouneh. The prominent woman activist was documenting violations by government and rebel groups in the war when she disappeared, along with two other colleagues and her husband, in December 2013.
El Deeb in Beirut reported from Beirut.
ALBERT AJI and SARAH EL DEEB