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Syrian army and allies breaks rebel siege of Shi'ite towns: army

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army and its allies have broken a three-year rebel siege of two Shi’ite towns in northwest Syria, government and rebel groups said on Wednesday, cutting off a main insurgent route to nearby Turkey.

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The two towns of Nubul and Zahraa, with an estimated 60,000 population, are connected to the border by areas under the control of Kurdish militias that provided them some access.

Al Manar, television channel of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, joined Syria’s army and state media in reporting the breakthrough, which it said came after the army moved in from towns secured in a recent offensive in northern Aleppo province.

A Levant Front rebel said the siege was broken “after three days of legendary resistance by the revolutionaries facing the Russian military machine, an after more than 500 raids by Russian air planes”.

“Less than 3 km separate the regime from cutting all routes to opposition-held Aleppo,” said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said. “It did in three days what it failed to do in 3-1/2 years.”

Also on Wednesday, U.N.-mediated talks in Geneva to end the war in Syria were paused until Feb. 25. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura said they had not failed but urgently needed help from international backers led by the United States and Russia.

The Syrian government and its allies were meanwhile pressing offensives against rebels south of Aleppo, once Syria’s biggest city and commercial centre, and against Islamic State to the east of the city split between government and rebel control.

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Alongside heavy Russian aerial support, the advances have been made possible by ground troops from Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah movement and Iranian-backed militias that support President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The Russia air strikes that began in September tilted the war in Assad’s favour after setbacks earlier in 2015 brought rebel groups close to the coastal heartland of his Alawite sect

“The Syrian army and its allies have totally broken the siege on Nubul and Zahraa,” a senior army official told Reuters, referring to Hezbollah fighters and other militias fighting alongside government forces

Al Manar TV said pro-goovernment militias from the besieged towns were able to link up with advancing Syrian army troops after the town of Maarsteh al Khan fell to them.

Breaking the siege opens a direct route for the Syrian army to Kurdish-controlled Afrin and brings them closer to areas run by Turkish-backed insurgents near the Turkish border.

Defence strategists say the two heavily garrisoned towns could become a launching pad for the Syrian army and its allies for wider territorial gains in northern Aleppo province and to tighten the encirclement of the rebel-held part of Aleppo city.

“Ending the siege means the supply route to terrorists from Turkey to Aleppo has been severed,” a Syrian military source said.

Syria’s state-run news channel Al-Ikhbariyah quoted Nubul mayor Ali Balawi as saying the siege by mainly Islamist rebels was “cruel and caused much hardship”, with severe shortages of humanitarian goods. The only route that brought some food and essential goods came from Afrin to the north of the town.

The Syrian army also pressed ahead in southern Syria where it made advances near Deraa city in the town of Atman after securing the town of Sheikh Maskin last month.

Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Heneghan