BEIRUT (AP) - Syrian government forces on Saturday captured another village near Aleppo, tightening the noose around rebel-held parts of the northern city, Syrian state TV and an opposition activist group said.
The ground attack in Aleppo province sparked artillery shelling by Turkish troops at Kurdish positions as Ankara appears to be worried that Syrian Kurdish fighters and Syrian government forces might reach the northern town of Azaz that is home to a major border crossing point that has been controlled by militants since 2012.
Syrian state TV reported late Saturday night that Turkish troops fired five shells at the mountains of the coastal province of Latakia that recently witnessed intense clashes between government forces and Turkish-backed gunmen.
State TV and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said troops captured Tamoura on Saturday around noon, amid intense shelling and air raids by Russian warplanes.
Syrian troops have been advancing under cover of Russian airstrikes with the aim of besieging rebel-held parts of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. If they are able to do so, it will be the biggest defeat for insurgents since the conflict began in March 2011.
After capturing Tamoura, the troops still have to take several more villages and towns, including Hayan, Anadan, Hreitan and Kfar Hamra, in order to completely encircle the Aleppo rebels.
Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV said troops are now overlooking the town of Hayan and parts of Anadan. The Lebanese militant group is fighting alongside forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Al-Manar later aired live footage from an area overlooking Anadan in which Syrian troops were heavily pounding the area with artillery shells and white smoke could be seen billowing from several spots on the open area. Al-Manar has a reporter embedded with Syrian troops in Aleppo province.
To the north, warplanes carried out more than 20 air raids on the town of Tel Rifaat, a stronghold of the powerful ultraconservative Ahrar al-Sham group, according to the Observatory and activist Amer Hassan who is currently in the nearby town of Azaz. Tel Rifaat is about 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the border with Turkey.
“Today is one of the worst days since the revolution began,” said Hassan via Skype, adding that activists counted 46 air raids on Tel Rifaat alone Saturday. “We have not seen such intense air raids before.”
He added that Tel Rifaat is one of the biggest strongholds for militants in Aleppo province adding that “if Tel Rifaat falls it means that all northern parts of Aleppo will follow.”
Saturday’s fighting came a day after the United States and Russia announced a plan to halt the violence within a week, but it’s unclear whether fighters on the ground will adhere to it.
In another development, Turkish troops fired artillery shells at areas in northern Syria that are held by Syrian Kurdish fighters.
The Observatory said the artillery strikes targeted the village of Malkiyeh and the Mannagh air base, which was captured by Kurdish fighters and their allies earlier this week. Hassan, the activist in Azaz, confirmed that Turkish troops have shelled the air base.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confirmed that his country’s military forces fired at Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. He said Turkish forces retaliated against a Kurdish faction “that presented a threat in Azaz and its environs” in line with the country’s rules of engagement.
Turkish troops have bombarded areas under the control of Syria’s main Kurdish military, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, multiple times in the past. Turkey says the YPG is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement, which has waged a long and bloody insurgency in southeast Turkey.
“The YPG must immediately leave (the Syrian town of) Azaz and must not come any where near Azaz,” the state-run Anadolu Agency quotes Davutoglu as saying.
Also Saturday, an official with the rebel Army of Islam group that controls areas near the capital Damascus said that they killed scores of soldiers on Feb. 7, when they ambushed an army force that was trying to infiltrate into Tel Soran near the Damascus suburb of Douma.
The Observatory said last Sunday’s attack killed 76 government troops adding that 45 were killed in the ambush and another 31 died after entering a mine field.
Syria’s five-year war has killed 250,000 people, wounded more than a million and displaced half the country’s population.
Also on Saturday, the U.N. refugees agency, UNRWA, said it was able to deliver “urgently needed humanitarian supplies” to civilian residents in the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus for the first time in nine months.
UNRWA Spokesperson Chris Gunness said that although the U.N. agency members did not enter the camp itself, they were able to reach the nearby area of Yalda, where 900 families from Yarmouk, Yalda and the neighboring areas of Babila and Beit Sahem were provided with 35-kilogram (77 pounds) food parcels.
Gunness said despite the fact that some humanitarian assistance has entered these areas since the last UNRWA distribution in June “humanitarian needs remain acute.”
“There are clear indications that disease is on the rise, particularly among the most vulnerable such as children. There is an acute lack of medicines to treat them,” Gunness said in a statement.
The camp was captured by the extremist Islamic State group in April last year.
In the suburbs of Damascus, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent transported four trucks of aid into an area on the edge of Douma. Operations Director at the SARC Hazem Baqleh said the supplies included baby formula and medicine for people suffering from chronic diseases.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria; Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Dominique Soguel in Istanbul contributed to this report.
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