BEIRUT: Syrian government forces backed by paramilitary fighters and warplanes pounded rebel units in northern Latakia province Monday in a desperate effort to regain control of towns and villages in President Bashar Assad’s homeland recently lost to an opposition offensive.
State TV said army troops captured the hilltop position of Observatory 45, a strategic post with a commanding view of the contested surrounding mountains and green plains below.
It later showed footage of what it said were rebels killed during the government offensive. Several bearded men in military uniforms lay dead, covered with blood, as government troops stood in the background.
Local activists and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, however, said the rebels repulsed the attack. The Observatory said nine insurgents were killed in the fighting, while the regime side’s losses stood at 25 killed and wounded.
Rebels also fired Grad rockets at Bassel Assad Airport, but no casualties were reported.
Elsewhere in the province, helicopters dropped a number of barrel bombs on the Jabal Turkmen region, while airstrikes targeted the Jabal Akrad area, wounding an undetermined number of people, the Observatory said.
Fighters from several conservative and hard-line Islamist groups, including the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, launched their assault on the northern stretches of Latakia province along the Turkish frontier on March 21. They have seized a border crossing, several villages and the Armenian town of Kasab, as well as an outlet to the sea.
Syria’s information minister lashed out at Turkey, accusing Ankara of sending foreign fighters across the border to fight government troops in Latakia.
Hours after Omran Zoubi’s comments, Turkey said its artillery fired into Syrian territory in retaliation for a rocket that hit a mosque in a Turkish border town, wounding a 60-year-old Syrian woman refugee.
The governor’s office for Turkey’s Hatay province said three mortar rounds fired during fighting between the regime and rebel groups also landed on Turkish territory, but did not hurt anyone.
It said Turkish artillery aimed at the origin of the rocket and mortar rounds. Turkey frequently retaliates against stray fire from Syrian government or opposition forces.
Hostilities have flared along the Syria- Turkey border on several occasions during the 3-year-old conflict and last week Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet, saying it violated its airspace. The Syrian government vehemently denied the claim, with state media saying the jet was flying in Syrian airspace, 7 km from the border when it was shot down.
Speaking to Syrian state TV late Sunday, Zoubi said neighboring Turkey was facilitating the entry of “groups of foreigners armed to the teeth” into the province.
Syrian warplanes also bombed the town of Harem in Idlib province near the border with Turkey, Turkish state-run news agency Anadolu reported. It said 23 people wounded in the raids were brought across the border to the Turkish town of Reyhanli for treatment. One of them died.
The Observatory said the raid on Harem killed eight men, including rebels and wounded dozens. In Aleppo, airstrikes, barrel bombs and shelling by government troops targeted a number of areas, while the Observatory said it received evidence that an Islamist rebel group had killed 22 regime troops in a recent ambush in the Aziza region near the city, decapitating four of them.
On the Qalamoun front near the border with Lebanon, rebels staged attacks against government troops and Hezbollah fighters, anti-regime activists and the Observatory said.
The Observatory said five regime troops, among them a colonel, were killed by the rebels. The insurgents recently lost a string of positions in the mountainous region, and are now launching hit-and-run attacks on government-held positions.
In the Latakia offensive alone, more than 1,000 people have been killed and wounded on both sides of the fighting according to the Observatory. Among those killed were at least 194 soldiers and allied paramilitaries and 27 army officers, including a second cousin of the president, Hilal Assad.
More than 128 rebel fighters, among them 56 non-Syrians, were also killed in the 10 days of battles, the Observatory said.