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Syrian army attacks rebel stronghold: insurgent spokesman

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army and its allies have launched ground attacks in the country’s northwest against the last major insurgent enclave after days of shelling and air strikes, a rebel official said on Monday.

Syria’s military, backed in the war by Russia and Iran, opened a fierce bombardment of the rebels’ northwestern enclave of Idlib and surrounding areas last week, causing a wave of displacement from frontline areas.

Syrian state news agency SANA reported on Monday that the army had “expanded its response to violations” by rebels. A reporter on state-owned Ikhbariya TV said this was limited to air and artillery strikes so far.

The army “might resort to a ground operation at some point,” he said without elaborating.

Northwest Syria is covered by a deal agreed in September between the government’s ally Russia and the rebels’ ally Turkey that averted a major offensive.

Fighting has concentrated on the southwestern edge of the enclave, near the rebel-held town of Kafr Nabouda, said Naji Mustafa, spokesman for the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) insurgent group.

“This morning since dawn the regime began a violent bombardment,” he said, adding that rebels had repulsed several government efforts to advance at the villages of al-Janabara and Tel Othman.

“It was the first time there was an attempt at a wide attack” since the start of the bombardment last week, he said.

The bombardment has displaced more than 158,000 people since April 28, said Ahmad al-Dbis, safety and security manager for the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which supports medical facilities in the area.

“If the regime continues to advance like this there will be a bigger humanitarian catastrophe and the more the regime advances, the bigger cities it targets,” he said.

Reporting By Amina Ismail and Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean