Syria rebels inflict new losses on Isil at Turkish border
Syrian rebel forces closed in on a town near the Turkish border held by Isil militants yesterday after seizing numerous villages from the group, rebels and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The rebels involved in the offensive include factions fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army that have been supplied with weapons via Turkey. They are advancing towards the Isil-held town of al-Rai.
A sustained rebel advance near the Turkish border would erode Isil's last foothold in an area identified by the US as a priority in the fight against Isil.
Rebels who have previously struggled to make sustained gains against Isil in the area have mobilised several thousand fighters for the attack, rebel sources said. An alliance of rebel groups formed for the offensive includes the Turkish-backed Sultan Murad and Failaq al Sham groups.
"The battles are continuing ... we have been able to liberate several villages very quickly from the Daesh (Isil) gangs and God willing will cleanse northern Aleppo," said Abu Yasser, a commander with Failaq al Sham group.
The Observatory said the rebel groups had seized at least 16 villages in an area held by Isil for nearly two years.
Isil's foothold at the Turkish border was significantly loosened last year by US-allied Kurdish fighters of the YPG, which gained territory from the group further east. The YPG and rebels are, however, locked in their own conflict, notably near the city of Aleppo. Turkey, a major sponsor of groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, has been alarmed by YPG gains near the frontier with Syria.
Clashes that broke out at dawn yesterday when Islamist rebels launched attacks on the Kurdish-held Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood in northern Aleppo city still raged later in the day, the Observatory said.
Dozens of mortars fired by the rebels killed 10 people and injured some 30 more. Four YPG fighters and a number of rebels were killed in the clashes, according to the Observatory.
During the fighting, rockets were launched after Kurdish YPG units were able to make gains from Sheikh Maqsoud and disrupt the Castello highway, the main route for civilians and rebels into rebel-held parts of the city. Rebels also shot down a second Syrian warplane in less than a month yesterday and reportedly captured its pilot in an area near Aleppo where heavy fighting has erupted in recent days despite a cessation of hostilities agreement.
The Syrian army said the jet was shot down with an anti-aircraft missile - the same type of weapon it says was used to shoot down a warplane in western Syria in March - but rebels accused Damascus of fabricating the claim, saying the plane was downed with anti-aircraft guns.
Foreign-backed rebels have long demanded anti-aircraft weapons to fight against devastating aerial raids by Syrian and, since September, Russian forces. But their backers, which include Western and Sunni Muslim regional states, are wary of delivering weapons that could fall into the hands of hardline groups.