Syrian insurgents in counteroffensive in northwestern area

Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani

Rebels launched a counter-attack against Syrian government forces and their allies in Idlib province on Thursday, trying to roll back an advance that is fuelling tension with neighbouring Turkey. The attack also aims to secure the road liking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's largest.

The government offensive has displaced tens of thousands of people who fled toward areas close to the Turkish border.

Idlib is the largest remaining territory in rebel hands, and its population is swollen with more than 1.1 million refugees who have fled fighting from other areas in Syria, according to the United Nations.

The offensive in the southern parts of province comes amid intense airstrikes and shelling that have killed 21 people since Sunday, according to the Observatory.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights [official profile], Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, on Wednesday condemned [press release] the rise in civilian casualties in the Eastern Ghouta region of Syria resulting from the recent increase in airstrikes and ground-based attacks by government forces and its allies, highlighting that all parties are "obliged under worldwide law to distinguish between lawful military targets, and civilians and civilian objects".

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State media did not report any blasts in the area.

Lowcock, on his first mission to Syria since his appointment previous year, called for agreements to allow the United Nations and other relief organizations to reach 2.5 million Syrians in need of aid on a regular basis.

Ninety-six civilians, including 27 children, have been killed since December 25 in Syrian or Russian air strikes on Idlib, according to the observatory.

Russian and Iranian Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Javad Zarif have reportedly spoken about the developments of these developments, which have caused chilling winds to blow ahead of a key meeting between government and opposition factions in the Syrian civil war in the Russian Black Sea coastal town of Sochi on January 29-30.

The International Rescue Committee said it had received hundreds of people newly displaced from the latest fighting in Idlib, many of them housed in makeshift tents. "The fear affected our brains", said the mother, quoted by the IRC. The Observatory's chief Rami Abdurrahman said 16 insurgents were killed in the fighting but didn't provide a figure for government casulaties. Despite it all, some civilians are determined to stay in their country. It says Western sanctions have crippled its economy.

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