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Militant assault 'kills at least 33 Syrian soldiers' in Hama province

Ansar al-Tawheed said to have attacked army checkpoints to avenge civilian casualties during recent army shelling
The army said in a statement that 'a number of' its soldiers had been killed in attacks by 'terrorists' (File pic - Reuters)

At least 33 government fighters were killed on Sunday in attacks by opposition militants in Hama province, in the deadliest day in six months for loyalist forces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the UK-based monitoring group, told the AFP news agency that five opposition fighters had also been killed.

Fighters from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions told the Reuters news agency that dozens of Ansar al-Tawheed fighters had attacked two army checkpoints near the village of Masasneh in northern Hama province in a dawn attack.

The attacks were reported to have taken place to avenge civilian casualties during a recent escalation of army shelling

Stepped up missile and rocket strikes on villages and towns in northern Hama and adjoining Idlib provinces have been blamed by residents for dozens of civilian deaths and injuries since the latest army campaign began early last month.

The army said in a statement that "a number of" its soldiers had been killed in attacks by "terrorists" and that bad weather had made the attacks easier.

The Syrian government routinely describes all opposition as "terrorists".

The recent escalation has targeted schools, mosques and bakeries and caused widespread damage to infrastructure, civil defence workers and hospital sources in opposition areas say.

According to Abdel Rahman, Sunday’s attacks inflicted "one of the highest casualty figures among regime ranks since the Putin-Erdogan deal".

He was referring to an accord struck in September in the Russian resort of Sochi by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

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The Sochi agreement staved off a Russian backed-government assault on Idlib province, the last remaining opposition bastion and now home to more than three million people.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was cited by TASS news agency on Sunday as telling Turkey to live up to its commitments under the Sochi accord, which requires banned militant groups to be expelled from a frontline buffer zone.

Lavrov said fighters previously belonging to the Nusra Front, which was formerly al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, were in control of large swathes of territory in Idlib province and were expanding their hold.

Nusra formally broke its ties with al-Qaeda in 2016 and its fighters now make up the main force within Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a coalition of fighting groups that is now the dominant militant force in Idlib. 

Ansar al-Tawhid has ties to the Hurras al-Deen group, which was formed in 2018 by fighters breaking away from HTS.

The government assault on the last major bastion of rebel forces has been held off, but the deal's provisions have not been implemented.

Since the Sochi agreement, HTS has consolidated its grip on most of Idlib province.