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Photo: The UNOCHA
Syria’s government has launched a ground offensive in Hama province that has been halted only by Russian airstrikes, according to the UN’s humanitarian affairs office.
The bombardment has caused the deaths of at least 72 people, including children, the UNOCHA said.
On Thursday, Syria’s air force dropped leaflets on civilian neighbourhoods warning people to stay away from government-held areas or risk being killed by falling bombs.
There was no immediate word from Syrian government or Russian officials on the ground offensive.
But Syrian government forces pressed on with a long-awaited ground offensive against rebels in Hama in January, a US state department spokesman said.
It involved the capture of towns on the outskirts of Hama city and surrounding areas, as well as the town of Atareb, which a rebel group said was retaken in the early hours of Friday.
If Hama province is retaken, government forces will then be able to approach Damascus, including its international airport, the biggest in the country, and connect to Idlib province and Aleppo, which would make the Syrian government’s push toward Eastern Ghouta and the Islamic State group’s (IS) pocket in the city of Raqqa more effective.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitor, says that Syrian government forces now hold 57% of the province.
Hama is the first northern province to fall to government forces since the civil war began in 2011, but it has been hard-fought.
In recent days, government forces have been advancing in the region of Barmina, which is also home to a powerful jihadist faction, Ahrar al-Sham.
Their offensive is now the first to target the province and is expected to complicate the battle for Aleppo, a major stronghold for Syrian government forces and Syria’s last major urban centre.
The area around the town of Atareb, also home to one of Syria’s last remaining major opposition bases, has been under attack since 20 February.
Dozens of people were killed, according to the Observatory.
Russia is providing air support to the Syrian army in the Hama province offensive. The conflict has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced more than 11 million since 2011.