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Fight in Syria causes cease-fire to unravel

Posted: 12:18 PM, Apr 02, 2016
Updated: 2016-04-02 16:18:12Z

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria's partial cease-fire is unravelling, as fierce fighting between government forces and opposition fighters, including members of the al-Qaida affiliated Nusra Front, erupted Saturday outside the country's second largest city of Aleppo.

At least 25 pro-government and 16 opposition fighters died in clashes south of Aleppo, where the Nusra Front and rebel militias captured a hill overlooking a major highway, a Britain-based monitoring group told The Associated Press.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said fighting continued throughout the day Saturday close to the village of Tel al-Ais, which overlooks the main road connecting Aleppo with the capital, Damascus.

The coordinated rebel and Nusra Front offensive follows weeks of air raids on opposition-held areas despite a "cessation of hostilities" that came into effect late February.

The truce agreement, the first of its kind in Syria's five year war, excludes the Nusra Front and the Islamic State group.

But the Nusra Front is embedded with other groups throughout the country. The government has taken advantage of this ambiguity to strike and besiege opposition-held areas across Syria.

Bombs fell near a school and a hospital in the eastern suburbs of Damascus Thursday, killing 33 civilians. Opposition officials, accusing the government, said the "massacre" threatened to derail the peace talks that are scheduled to resume in Geneva in two weeks.

Government airstrikes also targeted the public square in the opposition-held city of Maarat Nouman in the northern Idlib province Friday, where residents had protested against the Nusra Front presence in the town.

These latest strikes appear to have caused some rebel factions to reassess their position on the cease-fire. A number of groups — including some nominally party to the truce agreement — acknowledged on social media that they were battling government forces.

The Islam Army, whose political coordinator heads the opposition delegation during halting peace talks in Geneva, announced it had killed 20 government soldiers in fighting outside Damascus Friday.

A spokesman for a U.S.-backed division of the Free Syrian Army accused the government of scrapping the cease-fire and undermining the Geneva talks. The group said one of its fighters was killed in the offensive against government forces in the south Aleppo countryside.

"The truce is considered over," Zakariya Qaytaz of the Division 13 brigade told AP through Twitter. "This battle is a notice to the regime."

The United States and Russia, who engineered the cease-fire agreement, had hoped a halt in fighting would cause opposition factions to distance themselves from extremist groups such as the Nusra Front. Instead, factions seem to have united in their opposition to the government.

The nationalist Division 13 brigade is now fighting alongside Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful jihadist militia that is internally divided over its association with the al-Qaida affiliate.

Qaytaz said his faction remained wary of the Nusra Front after the latter stole their weapons and expelled them from Maarat al-Nouman in March.

The Nusra Front posted videos on social media showing mortars and tanks firing on what it said were government positions in the Aleppo countryside. The Observatory said the militant group was in control of Tel al-Ais, while Syria's state news agency acknowledged fierce clashes in the area Friday.