Syrian Islamist rebels execute 56 soldiers, advance on Shiite village

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Syrian Islamist rebels led by the country’s al-Qaeda branch have executed 56 captured soldiers, a monitoring group said Saturday, as the jihadists claimed advances on a besieged Shiite village in the north-west of the country.

The soldiers were shot to death in a mass execution days ago at the Abu al-Duhur air base in Idlib province near the Turkish border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The airport – the last government military base in the north-western province – fell on September 9 to an alliance called Jaish al-Fath, led by Syrian al-Qaeda branch the al-Nusra Front and the hardline Islamist Ahrar al-Sham movement.

The rebel alliance has now executed 71 soldiers at the base, according to the Britain-based observatory, which monitors the Syrian conflict through a network of opposition activists in the country.

Fierce fighting continued between Jaish al-Fath and pro-government militias backed by the Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah in two besieged Shiite villages in the province.

Al-Nusra claimed to have broken through government defences around Fouaa, and published a video showing its fighters treading their way through trenches and embankments.

The two villages are the sole remaining government territory in Idlib province, whose main cities fell to the resurgent rebels in recent months.

A former aide of Osama bin Laden, named as Abu al-Hassan al-Tunisi, was killed during fighting on the outskirts of Fouaa and neighbouring Kafraya, according to the Observatory.

Analyst Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center wrote on Twitter that al-Tunisi had been a senior official in the al-Nusra Front.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has battled a range of rebel forces, as well as the extremist Islamic State group, since mass protests against his rule descended into civil war in 2011.

Moscow said last week that it had been openly sending military equipment to the Syrian government to fight terrorism, specifically Islamic State, which has gained significant territory since early 2014 in both Syria and Iraq.

Russia, a staunch ally of al-Assad, said Friday it was ready to consider sending troops to Syria if Damascus asks.

The situation is made more complex by military operations against Islamic State inside Syria by a US-led coalition.

The Syrian conflict is becoming “more complicated” because of “Russian engagement,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in London after meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Moscow has shrugged off US concerns of Russian troops in the conflict, saying that “Russian military specialists” have been in Syria for many years to help with Russian-made equipment.

Kerry said Saturday that US and Russian defence ministers have spoken by phone extensively on defeating Islamic State, and Moscow’s help would be welcomed.

“But the other part of the equation is Assad and how you resolve the fact that he is a magnate for foreign fighters to come to the region,” Kerry added.

In central Syria, at least 26 people were killed late Friday in a wave of airstrikes by government jets in the Islamic State-held ancient city of Palmyra, the monitoring group said.

The head of the observatory, Rami Abdel-Rahman, described the bombardment as the heaviest since the extremist militia seized Palmyra in May.

The dead included 12 Islamic State fighters, his group said.

In recent weeks, the jihadist group has blown up the ancient Temple of Bel and some of the famed tower tombs in Palmyra, a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site.

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