Syrian rebels have reopened a vital supply line by capturing two villages from the Islamic State jihadist group as it came under pressure on a range of fronts in Syria and Iraq.
IS has controlled large areas of both countries since declaring its self-styled “caliphate” in 2014 but is losing territory in the face of separate assaults.
In Syria, pro-government forces, rebels and a US-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance are all engaged in offensives to squeeze the extremists’ supply lines, while Iraqi forces are advancing on the IS-held city of Fallujah.
The Damascus regime has also kept up its assaults on opposition areas, particularly in second city Aleppo, where at least 15 civilians were killed on Wednesday in bombing by pro-government forces.
North of the city, rebel fighters re-opened a key supply route linking their two main bastions in Aleppo province: Marea and Azaz.
In late May, IS captured several villages between the two towns, cutting off access to the Turkish border for Marea’s opposition forces.
But early Wednesday, rebels backed by Islamist groups launched simultaneous attacks from both Marea and Azaz, squeezing IS jihadists out of the villages of Kafr Kalbin and Kaljibrin and reopening the road, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman said IS fighters even pulled back from towns and villages east of the supply route, including Dudyan near the border.
In Aleppo, barrel bombs dropped from government helicopters killed 10 people near Al-Bayan hospital in Shaar neighbourhood, said the Observatory.
“We have three operation rooms and all the equipment inside them was damaged because of the force of the explosion,” doctor Marwan al-Radwan told AFP.
‘Life returning to Marea’
An AFP photographer saw bodies wrapped in bloodied white bags outside the hospital, while inside, the force of the blast had knocked supplies and parts of the wall onto the floor.
The hospital said a staff member was wounded.
The UN children’s agency, UNICEF, said two other medical facilities were also hit, Al-Hakim hospital and Abdulhadi Fares clinic, like Al-Bayan in the rebel-held eastern part of the city.
The Observatory said five other civilians -- including two children -- were killed in attacks on the Al-Marja and Al-Maadi districts.
It later reported seven rebel fighters killed in bombardment of Aleppo’s eastern Al-Sakhur neighbourhood.
“I was expecting the regime to respect this holy month (of Ramadan) and to hold off on shelling,” said Abu Mohammad, 65.
“We’re afraid to go out into the streets in the morning or at night when we break our fast.”
IS forces had long coveted Marea and battered the town for over a year with deadly car bombs and suicide attacks.
Its advance last month forced thousands to flee Marea and sparked fears the rebels would lose one of their last major northern hubs to the jihadists.
“Life is gradually returning to Marea,” journalist Mamoun Khateeb told AFP from the flashpoint town.
Khateeb himself was in Azaz when the IS offensive began and was only able to return to his hometown of Marea on Wednesday.
“After the road was re-opened, some people have come back and we’ve even seen trucks selling vegetables enter the town,” he said.
Advance in Fallujah
IS’s supply line leads from Jarabulus on the Turkish-Syrian border south through the town of Manbij and winds southeast along the Euphrates through the town of Tabqa and on to Raqa city.
The Arab-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, who receive air support from a US-led coalition, reached the northern edges of Manbij overnight, said the Observatory.
And regime fighters with Russian air cover were slowly edging towards Tabqa, where IS has sent fighters and weapons ahead of a potential battle.
The Kurdish and Arab alliance was set to attack Manbij within days, a US military spokesman said, helping clear the way for an eventual assault on the jihadists’ stronghold of Raqa.
“At the pace they’re moving now and at the speed that they’ve been able to fight the enemy, we think they’re a matter of days before they conduct the attack on (Manbij),” Baghdad-based military spokesman Colonel Chris Garver told reporters.
In Iraq, government forces backed by paramilitary groups and air support from the US-led coalition were advancing within IS-held Fallujah.
On Wednesday, the Iraqi fighters seized a southern neighbourhood in Fallujah city, said Sabah al-Nuaman, the spokesman for the elite counter-terrorism service fighting in the city.
Held by IS since January 2014, Fallujah is one of the most important bases of the jihadist organisation and the second-largest city in Iraq still under its control.