BEIRUT (AP) — Several hard-line Syrian rebel groups pushed a new offensive against government forces in northwestern Syria on Thursday, less than a month after seizing control of the provincial capital there.
The conservative Islamic factions, including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front, are coordinating a multi-pronged campaign whose main target appears to be the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province. Opposition fighters are also attacking government checkpoints in a sprawling agricultural plain south of the town as well as nearby military facilities.
The operation keeps the pressure on beleaguered government forces in the area just weeks after the rebels captured Idlib city, the provincial capital. Forces loyal to President Bashar Assad maintain control of Jisr al-Shughour as well as towns and military facilities in the province, but their hold looks increasingly shaky.
The opposition groups taking part in the new operation posted a statement online late Wednesday announcing the start of the offensive, which they call "Battle of Victory." They appealed to residents to stay inside "until God grants us and you victory and liberation."
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday the rebels have taken five checkpoints since the offensive began, including two near Jisr al-Shugour, in fighting that has killed at least eight rebels and an unknown number of government troops. Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman said heavy fighting raged outside of the town as well as in the Sahel al-Ghab plain to the south, and that government warplanes are bombing suspected rebel positions.
A Twitter account tied to the Nusra Front in the area carried videos showing what it said were fighters firing heavy machine guns at government forces during the clashes. It also posted photos of tanks and artillery purportedly shelling Syrian military positions.
The material could not be immediately verified, but it appeared genuine and corresponded to other Associated Press reporting.
Syria's state news agency said Thursday that the army prevented "terrorist groups" from sneaking into military camps in Idlib, and killed "scores of terrorists" in the countryside around Jisr al-Shughour. The government refers to those fighting to topple Assad as terrorists.
Also Thursday, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA, expressed concerns about the health situation in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in the capital Damascus, which has been the scene of clashes between local fighters and the Islamic State group since the beginning of April.
"Over the last days, UNRWA has found high incidents of skin infections, diarrhea and hepatitis amongst the civilians displaced from Yarmouk, illustrating the wretched living conditions endured by civilians in Yarmouk, and the sustained risk posed by rampant infectious diseases in the area," said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness.
He added that incidents of chronic illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma and cancer are high, making up almost 30 percent of medical cases seen.
Islamic State fighters overran much of Yarmouk earlier this month, establishing a foothold in the Syrian capital for the first time. The incursion is the latest trial for Yarmouk's residents, who have already suffered through a devastating two-year government siege, starvation and disease.
About 18,000 people are still in the camp, a built-up area once home to some 160,000 Palestinians and Syrians.
On Monday, the U.N. Security Council called for $30 million in emergency aid to help Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk. The council called for unhindered humanitarian access and the protection of civilians inside the camp.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.