Syrian troops capture strategic mountain in province of Latakia

BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces captured a strategic mountain in the country's northwest on Wednesday, inching closer to a rebel-held stronghold in the coastal province of Latakia, state media and a monitoring group said.

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State TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen took the Noba Mountain in Latakia early on Wednesday "after destroying the terrorists' positions and fortifications."

Government troops have been on the offensive in different parts of the country under the cover of Russian airstrikes, which began on Sept. 30. Capturing the mountains of Latakia would reduce threats to the coast -- a key stronghold of President Bashar Assad.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the taking of Noba Mountain opens the way for government forces toward the rebel-stronghold of Salma. The Observatory said government troops were backed by fighters from Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group, which sided with Assad in Syria's civil war.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV quoted one of its reporters, embedded with Syrian troops, as saying that government forces raised the Syrian flag on the mountain overlooking an array of rebel-held areas in Latakia.

Meanwhile, in the central Syrian city of Homs, a convoy of 18 trucks carrying food, medical supplies and construction material began entering the rebel-held neighbourhood of Waer, according to Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Krzysiek said the convoy is organized by the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

An ICRC statement released later Wednesday said it may take several days to deliver all the aid. It said the trucks are bringing in food supplies for 40,000 people and hygiene kits for 60,000 people. In addition, medical items sufficient for 1,000 dialysis sessions for patients with severe kidney problems will also be part of the aid delivered.

"Hopefully, this is just the start," said Alexandre Equey, the deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Syria. "We need to have regular access here and also to other areas, in order to help the people during these extremely difficult times."

Earlier this month, a deal in Waer saw a few hundred insurgents pull out of the district in return for a cease-fire and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The United Nations presided over implementation of the deal, which allowed those leaving Waer safe passage to the north.

A few thousand rebels had been holed up in Waer, which Syrian government forces had blockaded for nearly three years, only sporadically allowing in food.

Hundreds other fighters are expected to leave Waer in the coming weeks and once the evacuation of the rebels is completed, the city of Homs will fully return to government control.

Also on Wednesday, the German military said it has flown its first mission in support of the U.S.-led coalition effort against the militant Islamic State group in Syria.

The Bundeswehr said a German tanker aircraft had refuelled two fighter jets in-air as they flew missions against the extremist group, the dpa news agency reported. A German frigate has also been providing protection to the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, and German Tornado reconnaissance jets are expected to begin flying surveillance missions in January.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged the support after France asked for help in the wake of the recent deadly terror attacks in Paris, which were claimed by the Islamic State.

Up to 1,200 troops are expected to be involved in the German mission, which the military said is an exclusively non-combat support deployment.


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