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Syrian media report ceasefire agreed in Idlib

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian state media reported on Thursday that a ceasefire had been agreed in the last rebel bastion in the country, the northwest, where aid agencies say a government offensive is growing bloodier.

People walk past a damaged building in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

State media, citing a military source, said the ceasefire would take place from Thursday night, as long as rebel fighters implement the terms of a de-escalation agreement brokered last year by Russia and Turkey.

There was no immediate rebel comment.

Syrian troops have gained some ground in the area during a Russian-backed offensive that aid agencies warn is growing bloodier.

Syria’s army seized a handful of villages, fields and hills in the Hama countryside in the past two days, a military media unit for Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shi’ite movement, which fights alongside government forces, said on Thursday.

The wave of violence in northwest Syria since late April has killed more than 400 civilians and forced more than 440,000 to flee toward the Turkish border, the United Nations said last week.

The government and its Russian allies accuse the rebels of failing to comply with the terms of the de-escalation agreement which require heavy weapons and jihadist insurgents to be withdrawn from a buffer zone. State media reports described these as pre-conditions for Thursday’s ceasefire.

The region - including Idlib province and parts of nearby Hama - is part of the last major stronghold of armed opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, who has vowed to reclaim all of Syria, though his side has so far not made major advances in this latest assault.

In rare public comments, the Syrian army’s political chief pledged to seize Idlib if Russia, Assad’s ally, does not reach a diplomatic solution with Turkey, long an opposition backer.

Air strikes by the Syrian government and its allies have hit schools, hospitals, markets and bakeries, U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said last week.

Bombing has escalated in the last four weeks, killing and wounding more people than at any time this year, the non-profit Doctors Without Borders said on Wednesday night.

At least 33 children were killed since the end of June, the charity Save the Children said last week. “Bodies, some torn into pieces or burnt beyond recognition, are still being recovered from the rubble,” it said.

Major General Hasan Hasan, head of the Syrian army’s political bureau, said on Thursday that “the military path to eliminate terrorism in the north is ongoing.”

He told the pro-government al-Watan newspaper that it would be good if Moscow or Tehran can find a solution through talks with Ankara, which has forces stationed in the northwest.

“But at the same time, when matters reach a dead end, then the Syria Arab Army which cleansed all these vast areas...will not stop at all, neither at Idlib nor at any area,” he said.

The dominant force in Idlib is Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadists formerly known as the Nusra Front, and factions backed by Turkey also have a presence in the region.

Reporting by Ellen Francis and Tom Perry and Alaa Swilam; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Peter Graff