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Syria rebels advance in Hama province

Pro-Assad forces have reportedly suffered several defeats in Syria's Hama province as rebels try to take out key military airport
Syrian rebel fighters fire rockets towards a pro-Assad position on February 20, 2014 in the countryside near the city of Hama (AFP)

Syrian rebels pressed their advance Tuesday in the central province of Hama, as they tried to take out its military airport, a rebel commander and a monitor said.

"The rebels are now nine kilometres (six miles) away from Hama military airport, which they want to put out of action," said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

A rebel leader in the area, Yusef al-Hassan, said the airport was important because "that is where the regime makes its barrel bombs, and warplanes take off from there to carry out air strikes".

Barrel bombs have killed hundreds of civilians, especially in rebel areas of the divided northern city of Aleppo, in recent months.

According to the Observatory, rebels seized a major checkpoint north of Hama city, which is firmly under army control, on Monday night.

The takeover of the checkpoint in Tarabih comes on the back of Sunday's capture of a weapons depot in the area.

"The regime has suffered several defeats in Hama province in recent days," said Abdel Rahman.

As they have advanced, rebels have cut off the road linking Hama city, the provincial capital, to a string of government-controlled Christian and Alawite villages in the west of the province, he added.

Hassan said the army was sending reinforcements.

"They are stepping up their troop presence here, which will limit the regime's capabilities in other areas," the rebel leader told AFP via the Internet.

As for the military airport: "We are already striking it with Grad missiles," Hassan said.

Assad forces killed hundreds of civilians

The air force has used barrel bombs to hit opposition-controlled areas for months.

In Aleppo alone, air strikes since December have killed hundreds of civilians and forced thousands of families to flee.

Rights groups have hit out at the Assad government for using the crude bombs, which they describe as failing to discriminate between civilian and military targets.

A barrel bomb strike on a rebel-held village in Daraa province Monday killed an elderly man, his daughter and her three grandchildren, said the Observatory.

In Aleppo itself, rebel on Tuesday detonated two explosives-filled tunnels under a government-held building, leaving "13 dead among the guards and regime forces" and wounding an unspecified number of others, the Observatory said.

The building in Aleppo's mostly government-controlled old city was a police station occupied by pro-Assad forces.

The Islamic Front, one of the largest rebel groupings, said it launched the attack.

A photograph posted by the group on Facebook reportedly of the attack showed a huge cloud of smoke rising into the sky near to the city's historic citadel.

On May 8, rebel forces also used explosive-packed tunnels to blow up the city's Carlton hotel, killing at least 14 government soldiers and pro-Assad militiamen.

At least 113 people were killed on Monday, the day of the Eid feast marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, the Observatory said.

More barrel bombs

Meanwhile, aid organisation Doctors Without Borders said Monday a member of its staff was among 25 killed in two car bomb attacks at the weekend in the northwestern province of Idlib.

The Saturday car bomb that hit the border town of Atme, said the group, targeted a busy market area on the eve of the Eid feast.

At least 15 people were killed by barrel bombs dropped by Syrian army helicopters in Aleppo, reports say.

The Syrian opposition’s Shahba Press Agency said that the attack took place in the evening in and around Aleppo, which is controlled by opposition forces.

Tens of people, wounded in the attacks, were taken to field hospitals, also controlled by opposition forces, the agency said.

Syria has been gripped by fighting since pro-Assad forces launched a violent crackdown in response to anti-government protests in March of 2011, triggering a conflict that has spiralled into a civil war.

Syria's war has killed more than 170,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee.

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