Syrian army battles to free loyalists

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Syrian forces drive on May 9, 2015 near Assal al-Ward, in Qalamun region, after they seized control of parts of the area that straddles the Syria-Lebanon border (AFP Photo)

Beirut (AFP) – At least 72 al-Qaeda rebels were killed in a single day as the Syrian army battled to relieve some 250 besieged loyalists under rebel assault, a monitoring group said Monday.

President Bashar al-Assad had personally pledged to rescue the trapped troops and civilians, who are said to include senior figures and have been holed up in a hospital complex since rebels captured the northwestern town of Jisr al-Shughur two weeks ago.

As the relief column fought its way to within two kilometres of the complex on Sunday morning, the rebels launched an all-out assault, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

At least 40 rebels and 32 soldiers were killed in the heavy fighting that erupted inside the complex and with the advancing column, Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

The clashes continued into the early hours of Monday with the rebels retaking some ground from the advancing troops before being pushed back.

Among the 250 people holed up inside the complex are around 150 soldiers, including “high-ranking officers,” as well as their family members and some civil servants, Abdel Rahman said.

It is unclear how much food and ammunition they have left.

The rebels assaulting the complex include fighters of Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front.

They seized the rest of Jisr al-Shughur on April 25, extending their gains in Idlib province, where they have also captured the provincial capital and a military base in recent weeks.

Meanwhile Syria’s deputy foreign minister criticized a new U.S. program to train rebel fighters in Jordan, saying it will only fuel terrorism and further complicate efforts to reach a political solution.

The remarks by Faisal Mekdad were published in his weekly column for the Lebanon-based Al-Binaa newspaper.

U.S. officials said Thursday the training started in Jordan with about 90 rebels. The program will expand to training sites in Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with 400 rebel fighters completing the prescreening process.

Mekdad said Washington is better off helping those who are fighting terrorism, instead of cooperating with what he said were terrorists. 

Assad’s forces are backed by fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran.

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