Middle East

Syria conflict: Army launches counter-offensive south of Aleppo

Village of al-Eis in Aleppo province (2 April 2016) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The northern village of al-Eis was captured by al-Nusra Front fighters in recent days

Syrian government forces have launched a counter-offensive to retake a village south of the city of Aleppo recently captured by jihadist militants.

Troops and militiamen from Lebanon's Hezbollah movement began the assault on al-Eis overnight, backed by heavy air strikes, opposition activists say.

Al-Eis was seized by the al Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front on Monday.

The fighting was said to be the fiercest in the area since the partial truce declared five weeks ago.

The cessation of hostilities has largely held despite both sides accusing each other of breaches and has resulted in a significant reduction in violence across much of Syria.

However, it does not include al-Nusra or the rival jihadist group Islamic State (IS).

Captured pilot 'interviewed'

Al-Eis, about 20km (12 miles) south-west of Aleppo, lies next to hills that overlook the motorway connecting Syria's second city with the capital, Damascus.

Al-Nusra fighters and allied rebels attacked government positions in and around the village on Friday, killing 43 soldiers and 11 Hezbollah militiamen, sources told the Reuters news agency. By Monday, they had taken full control of the area.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Al-Eis and its surrounding hills overlook the Damascus-Aleppo motorway
Image copyright AP
Image caption Al-Nusra Front fighters reportedly killed dozens of soldiers and pro-government militiamen on Friday

On Wednesday, activists and rebels reported that the army and Hezbollah had launched a counter-offensive overnight to recapture al-Eis.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said the assault was backed by air strikes, artillery and rocket fire.

The website of Hezbollah's al-Manar television cited a statement from the Syrian army that said troops had started to target the positions of armed groups in areas south of Aleppo, in response to violations of the cessation of hostilities agreement.

The Syrian Observatory said government forces had made some progress by Wednesday afternoon but that al-Eis remained in the hands of al-Nusra-led forces.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Syrian authorities confirmed a military aircraft was shot down over the Aleppo countryside

A spokesman for the Sham Revolutionary Brigades rebel group, Hany al-Khaled, told Reuters news agency its fighters had helped repel the assault and that pro-government Shia Muslim militias had suffered heavy losses.

Nusra also released a video purportedly showing an interview with a Syrian military pilot who it said had been captured after his aircraft was shot down over the Aleppo countryside near al-Eis on Tuesday.

In a separate development, the Syrian Observatory reported that a rebel mortar attack on the predominantly Kurdish Sheikh Maqsud district of Aleppo on Tuesday had killed 18 civilians, including a pregnant woman and three children.

IS meanwhile said it had launched several attacks north-east of Damascus overnight, targeting the Tishrin power station and the nearby Dumeir military airport.

A Syrian military source told Reuters there had been attacks but all of the militants who took part in them had been killed.