Syria army presses fight near Damascus despite truce

Beirut

Syria’s army advanced Monday as it battles to capture a rebel region that is key to the capital’s water supply, launching strikes and artillery fire threatening a fragile nationwide truce.
The ceasefire brokered by regime ally Russia and Turkey, which backs the opposition, is now in its fourth day, despite sporadic violence and continued fighting in the Wadi Barada area near Damascus.
“Regime forces and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah group are advancing in the region and are now on the outskirts of Ain al-Fijeh, the primary water source in the area,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.
He said government troops and allied fighters were engaged in fierce clashes with rebels, including from the former Al-Qaeda affiliate now known as Fateh al-Sham Front.
The monitor said government forces were carrying out air strikes and artillery fire on the area, northwest of the capital, but reported no casualties. Wadi Barada has been surrounded by government forces since mid-2015, but the siege was tightened in late December as the army piled on pressure seeking to secure a “reconciliation” deal.
It has won several of these deals in opposition areas around the capital, offering safe passage to surrendering rebels in return for retaking territory.
The opposition criticises them as a “starve or surrender” tactic. As the fighting stepped up in the area, Syria’s government says rebels targeted key water infrastructure, causing leaking fuel to poison the water supply and then cutting it off altogether.
The United Nations says at least four million people in Damascus have been without water since December 22.
The Observatory said around 1,000 civilians — all of them women and children — fled the fighting in Wadi Barada over the weekend, moving to other parts of the province.
The violence threatens the delicate truce that came into force last week and is intended to pave the way to new peace talks in Kazakhstan later this month.—AFP

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