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Syria: Government intensifies assault on rebel stronghold

BEIRUT — The Syrian military intensified its assault Monday on rebel strongholds in Idlib province, pounding opposition-controlled areas from the air and land, according to antigovernment activists.

The opposition reported more than two dozen killed in recent days in government attacks on rebel strongholds in the strategically situated zone, which is close to the Turkish border, long a conduit for smuggled arms destined for the opposition and for gunmen seeking to join the rebellion.

Much of the northwestern province has been an insurgent bastion for more than a year, though its capital, Idlib city, has remained in government hands.

Government airstrikes were continuing Monday in the southern countryside of Idlib, opposition activists said. "The helicopter bombing has increased in the last few days,” said an opposition-affiliated journalist from Idlib who goes by the nickname Zakwaan Hadid, speaking via Skype. “I’ve just received the names of five martyrs,” he said, using the term commonly employed by both sides for those killed in the conflict.

The official Syrian Arab News Agency said that units from the Syrian army had "annihilated a number of terrorists in a series of unique operations ... against their lairs ... which included weapons, ammunition, and terrorists" in Iblin and Bara villages as well as in other parts of Idlib province.

The government routinely refers to armed rebels as terrorists.

The push in Idlib comes as government forces have also been mounting offensive operations in the central province of Homs and on the outskirts of Damascus, the Syrian capital, sending rebel fighters into retreat. The Syrian military has reportedly been advancing into several Damascus suburbs, including Jobar, Qaboun and Harasta, which have long been insurgent strongholds.

Syrian authorities appear determined to ratchet up the pressure on the opposition, taking advantage of the rebels’ lack of unity and the paucity of heavy weapons in the opposition arsenal. Some see an attempt to turn civilians against the rebel Free Syrian Army, or FSA, and other allied factions.

They are “trying to foment cvilians' anger against the FSA, so as to weaken its popularity among the people,” said an activist who goes by the nickname Arabizer, reached in Idlib via Skype.

The current government campaign, although intensified, was familiar, opposition activists said. “We've gotten used to any gathering of people being bombed,” concluded Hadid, the opposition-linked journalist.


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Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this report.

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