Fighting rages after Syria rebels retake northwest village

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian opposition fighters said Wednesday they recaptured a village on the edge of their stronghold in northwestern Syria that had been seized two weeks earlier by government forces in an offensive that wrecked a months-old cease-fire in the densely populated area.

State TV Al-Ikhbariya later reported that government troops were in intense clashes with the insurgents inside the village, in what appeared to be an attempt by the Syrian army to wrestle back control of Kfar Nabuda.

The capture of Kfar Nabuda by government forces on May 8 was the most serious challenge to the cease-fire in Idlib province and surrounding areas negotiated by Russia and Turkey in September. It was the first ground advance by government forces on the rebel stronghold, home to 3 million people, since the cease-fire averted an earlier offensive.

The area is among the last outside President Bashar Assad’s control — and the last area still held by anti-government rebels in the country’s eight-year civil war.

Naji al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the opposition fighters, said they regained control of the village on Wednesday following an overnight counteroffensive. He said they aim to regain control of all the areas seized by the government over the last two weeks.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed government forces were repelled from Kfar Nabuda, adding there were clashes on the outskirts.

The rebel advance was met with intense government and Russian airstrikes on the enclave. The Observatory said at least 18 were killed since late Tuesday in strikes on four villages and towns, including 12 in an airstrike on a market in Maaret al-Numan. Syrian first responders, the White Helmets, put the death toll in the market airstrike at nine.

In Turkey’s capital, Ankara, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said talks with Russia to contain the violence were ongoing.

“We have told (the Russians) the (Syrian) regime must be controlled. The regime’s attacks must be stopped,” Akar said. “They said they would work on it.”

Russia had said the insurgents are increasingly directing their missiles toward its military base in the coastal province of Latakia, explaining its participation in the strikes against the rebel stronghold, despite sponsoring the cease-fire.

On Sunday, Moscow said Syrian forces had halted their attacks, but activists reported continued shelling and strikes.

Government forces seized Kfar Nabuda on May 8, cutting into rebel-held territory. The capture of the village facilitated government troop advances to the west and north, leading to the fall of several villages.

The clashes erupted on April 30, wrecking the cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey and raising fears of a wider government offensive.

The violence has already displaced 180,000 people inside the rebel-held area that straddles most of northwestern Idlib province and parts of neighboring Hama. The U.N., the U.S. and others have called for an end to the violence.

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Associated Press writer Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.

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