BEIRUT: Syrian government forces seized a village from rebels on the edge of a large cease-fire zone in the northwest Sunday as warplanes targeted opposition positions farther inside the area, according to activists. A local media activist who goes by the name Obeida Hamawi said the government pushed opposition fighters out of the village of Zalaqiyat, in Hama province, Saturday, following days of fighting that killed at least 14 rebels.
Zalaqiyat is of little strategic value save for its hilltop, according to Hama native Ahmad al-Ahmad, but it was the first point seized by rebels in a Hama offensive launched in March. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Hama-based Khabar News Agency meanwhile reported intense airstrikes on the town of Latamneh, in opposition-held territory about 6 kilometers to the north.
The Observatory said 11 pro-government fighters were killed in the Zalaqiyat advance. It also reported a drop in fighting in the four areas designated by the de-escalation agreement: Idlib province, north Homs province, the Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and parts of Syria’s southern provinces.
Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed Friday to enforce a cease-fire between government and opposition forces in four areas in Syria, including one that extends into northern Hama province, where Zalaqiyat lies. It is not clear if the agreement encompasses the village. Russia says it will publish maps by June 4.
The United States is not party to the de-escalation agreement, and the Syrian government and opposition have not signed onto the deal. The armed opposition is critical of the agreement and has demanded a national cease-fire instead.
In other developments, dozens of Daesh (ISIS) fighters cornered in a northern part of Tabqa are holding off the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that hold almost the entire city, the Observatory said Sunday. Tabqa sits on the Euphrates River and on a strategic supply route about 55 kilometers west of Raqqa, the Syrian heart of Daesh’s so-called caliphate. In their drive for Raqqa, the SDF have captured more than 90 percent of Tabqa, but have not been able to fully clear the militants out of the city or the adjacent dam.
“The SDF hasn’t been able to seize complete control of Tabqa because IS [Daesh] fighters are still present in the neighborhoods of Wahdah and Hurriyah,” said Rami Abdel-Rahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory. The two districts are in the city’s north near Tabqa Dam, Syria’s largest.
Abdel-Rahman said “dozens” of Daesh fighters were laying mines and engaging in small-scale skirmishes with the SDF, but had not deployed suicide bombers in recent days.
An SDF commander inside Tabqa told AFP Sunday that his forces were locked in “violent clashes” in the northern part of the city. “The operation is going slowly because of the presence of civilians being used as human shields by IS,” the commander said, saying his forces were trying to advance “carefully and accurately.”
“Soon we will be able to announce the city fully cleared of Daesh,” the commander added.
The SDF first entered Tabqa on April 24, but Daesh has put up fierce resistance including using snipers and weaponized drones, a tactic it perfected in neighboring Iraq.
Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Manar TV reported Sunday that an agreement has been reached to evacuate wounded fighters of Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, from Yarmouk, in the southern suburbs of Damascus, to rebel-held Idlib province.
The agreement is the second phase of an earlier deal to evacuate people from two towns besieged by rebels, and two towns besieged by pro-government forces, the first phase of which was implemented last month, Al-Manar reported.
The wounded fighters and some others accompanying them would form a group of about 50, the television channel reported.