ALEPPO: Syrian rebels reopened a vital supply line by capturing two villages yesterday from the Islamic State group as it came under pressure on a range of fronts in Syria and Iraq. IS has controlled large areas of both countries since declaring its self-styled "caliphate" in 2014 but is losing territory in the face of separate assaults.
In Syria, pro-government forces, rebels and a US-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance are all engaged in offensives to squeeze the extremists' supply lines, while Iraqi forces are advancing on the IS-held city of Fallujah. The Damascus regime has also kept up its assaults on opposition areas, particular in second city Aleppo, where at least 15 civilians were killed yesterday in bombing by pro-government forces that struck near a hospital.
North of the city, rebel fighters re-opened a key supply route linking their two main bastions in Aleppo province: Marea and Azaz. In late May, IS captured several villages between the two towns, cutting off access to the Turkish border for Marea's opposition forces. But yesterday, rebels backed by Islamist groups launched simultaneous attacks from both Marea and Azaz, squeezing IS jihadists out of the villages of Kafr Kalbin and Kaljibrin and reopening the road, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Director Rami Abdel Rahman said IS fighters even pulled back from towns and villages east of the supply route, including Dudyan near the border. Government bombing meanwhile outside the Al-Bayan hospital in Aleppo's Shaar neighborhood killed 10 people, according to Observatory. An AFP photographer saw bodies wrapped in bloodied white bags outside the hospital, while inside, the force of the blast had knocked supplies and parts of drywall onto the floor. Al-Bayan hospital said a staff member was wounded in the strikes and the building had been evacuated.
'Life' back in Marea
According to the Observatory, five other civilians-including two children-were killed in attacks on the Al-Marja and Al-Maadi districts. Rescue workers known as the White Helmets gave a higher toll of 23 dead in rebel-held areas. The Observatory later reported seven rebel fighters killed in bombardment of Aleppo's eastern Al-Sakhur neighborhood. IS forces had long coveted Marea and battered the town for over a year with deadly car bombs and suicide attacks. Its advance last month forced thousands to flee Marea and sparked fears that the rebels would lose one of their last major northern hubs to the jihadists. "Life is gradually returning to Marea," journalist Mamoun Khateeb said from the flashpoint town yesterday.
Khateeb himself was in Azaz when the IS offensive began and was only able to return to his hometown of Marea yesterday. "After the road was re-opened, some people have come back and we've even seen trucks selling vegetables enter the town," he said. He said many residents that had fled to nearby villages were too afraid to return to Marea because of the notorious landmines left behind by IS as it withdrew. The jihadist group is infamous for planting landmines and other explosive devices in towns or cities it loses.
Advance in Fallujah
IS's supply line leads from Jarabulus on the Turkish-Syrian border south through the town of Manbij and winds southeast along the Euphrates through the town of Tabqa and on to Raqa city. The Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, which receives air support by a US-led coalition, reached the northern edges of Manbij overnight, said the Observatory. And Syrian regime fighters with Russian air cover are slowly edging towards Tabqa, where IS has sent fighters and weapons ahead of a potential battle. In Iraq, government forces backed by paramilitary groups and air support from the US-led coalition are advancing within IS-held Fallujah.
Yesterday, the Iraqi fighters seized a southern neighborhood in Fallujah city, said Sabah Al-Nuaman, the spokesman for the elite counter-terrorism service (CTS) fighting in the city. "Counter-terrorism forces liberated Hay Al-Shuhada Al-Thaniya entirely from (IS) control and raised the Iraqi flag over buildings in the district," he said. Lieutenant General Abdelwahab Al-Saadi, who is commanding the operation, said IS fighters "were hiding in fortified tunnels and scattered houses in the district." Held by IS since January 2014, Fallujah is one of the most important bases of the jihadist organization and the second-largest city in Iraq still under its control._ AFP