At least 25 civilians, including six children, were killed in suspected Syrian government airstrikes on Hama province as rebels made new gains there, activists said.
The Hama-based Syrian Press Center, an activist group operated by Ahmed al-Ahmed, said at least 10 people were killed when warplanes struck a crowd of people displaced from Suran, a town north of the city of Hama, which was seized by opposition fighters. Another 15 people were killed further to the west, the center said.
The rebel offensive is led by an ultraconservative Islamic group, Jund al-Aqsa, and several factions from the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. In the past three days, the insurgents have pushed their way from the north of the province, where they are usually based, south toward government-held areas.
Al-Ahmed said the rebels were only 5 miles away from the provincial capital, Hama. They have taken over a government military base and control several towns along the highway linking Hama to Damascus, following a “surprising” government retreat, he said.
The advances in Hama are significant because if rebels control the city and the highway they can sever government supply lines and deprive Assad of a traditional stronghold. Fighting is now concentrated around a hill outside the city of Hama, al-Ahmed added.
Al-Ahmed, who spoke from Turkey, said government forces in Hama province may have been weakened because many troops were transferred to the city of Aleppo, where they have gotten bogged down in vicious fighting with advancing rebels.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the insurgents’ advance and said a series of airstrikes since early Thursday killed at least 25 civilians, including six children, in northern Hama province.
Syria’s state news agency, SANA, said government warplanes killed 10 “terrorists” in northern Hama.
At a press conference in Geneva, the U.N. envoy to Syria warned of Syrian government’s use of siege tactics to force evacuations of residents from specific areas, citing the example of Daraya, a neighboring suburb of Moadamiyeh from where residents were evacuated after it was surrendered to the government.
“After Daraya, we may have other Darayas,” Staffan de Mistura said.
Government forces kept Daraya under tight siege for four years after the suburb evicted security forces in 2012, and ultimately secured an agreement for the estimated 6,000 remaining civilians to leave the area last week. De Mistura acknowledged such examples, if repeated, “could be a strategy” that is taking place.
De Mistura’s humanitarian adviser, Jan Egeland, says the U.N. humanitarian task force for Syria had “failed the people of Daraya.” He warned that sieges on al-Waer in Homs and Madaya, near Damascus, could force similar exoduses.
The U.N. envoy also said he was preparing “a quite clear political initiative” to help revive the stalled Syria peace talks aimed at resolving the country’s devastating civil war, now in its sixth year. De Mistura said the “important” initiative will come ahead of a planned Sept. 21 meeting on Syria during the U.N. General Assembly ministerial meeting in New York.
The U.N. envoy had hoped to resume talks between Assad’s government and the main opposition group in August, having set two target dates during the month. He suspended the talks in April amid renewed fighting.
Story by The Associated Press