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Syria rebels claim push against Assad forces in Aleppo countryside

The Islamic Front says it seized control of al-Mallah area and Ratyan town in northern Syria, killed 195 pro-Assad soldiers in fighting
Rebel fighters from Syria's Islamic Front hold a position on 13 July, 2014 during clashes with militants of the Islamic State for the control a village on the outskirts of Aleppo (AFP)

Syrian opposition group the Islamic Front has claimed to have killed 195 soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in fighting on Tuesday and seized control of villages from the government in Aleppo, northern Syria.

The Islamic Front said it killed the soldiers in the al-Mallah area, 60 in Ratyan town and 45 in al-Rashedin village, as well as capturing a large number of soldiers who are backed by Shiite militias, according to Salih Anadani, an Islamic Front spokesman.

"Intense clashes took place near Hardantin village after retaking control of al-Mallah area and Ratyan town," Anadani said.

Meanwhile, the UN's Syria envoy said Damascus is willing to facilitate a humanitarian ceasefire by halting fire on Aleppo, where troops are engaged in a new offensive to encircle rebels.

Assad forces in new offensive

The comments by Staffan De Mistura on Tuesday came as pro-Assad forces severed the main rebel supply line into Aleppo.

"The government of Syria has indicated to me its willingness to halt all aerial bombing and artillery shelling for a period of six weeks all over the city of Aleppo from a date we'll announce from Damascus," De Mistura told journalists after addressing the UN Security Council.

Rebel fighters who hold parts of Aleppo but have no air power would be asked to suspend rocket and mortar fire for six weeks.

"The purpose is to spare as many civilians as possible while we try to find a political solution," the diplomat said.

The announcement was the first sign of progress for De Mistura, who was appointed UN peace envoy for Syria in July.

Last year he proposed a plan to "freeze" fighting in Aleppo in a bid to allow humanitarian access, but the proposal failed to gain much traction.

And De Mistura incurred the wrath of the opposition last week by describing Assad as "part of the solution" to the country's conflict.

Rebels insist on Assad departure to resolve conflict

The rebels and opposition insist Assad's departure is a precondition for resolving the country's brutal war, which began in March 2011 with peaceful anti-government protests.

It spiralled into a civil conflict after a government crackdown, and the violence has killed more than 210,000 people.

On the ground, meanwhile, Syrian troops effectively severed the main rebel supply route into the eastern half of Aleppo city, which is under opposition control, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The highway runs up to the Turkish border through the town of Tal Rifaat, but Assad loyalists now control two villages that straddle the route, effectively closing it to rebel traffic.

Aleppo city has been divided between government control in the west and rebel control in the east since shortly after fighting began there in mid-2012.

In the surrounding countryside the situation is largely the reverse, with rebels controlling much of the area west of the city and government forces much of the east.

Government forces advanced around the east of the city last year, but the front lines have been relatively static in recent weeks.

The severing of the highway leaves the rebels with only a long detour through the countryside available to them for resupply.

Pro-Assad forces also captured the village of Hardateen in the countryside of Aleppo, but lost another village to rebel fighters in the area, the Britain-based Observatory said.

'Big ifs'

The fighting left more than 150 people dead, the monitor reported, including at least 70 regime forces, both army troops and foreign and local militiamen.

At least 86 opposition forces were killed, including 20 from Al-Nusra Front.

"Aleppo is very important for us," a Syrian military source told AFP on Tuesday.

The new government offensive comes shortly after pro-Assad forces opened a new front in southern Daraa province.

"This military operation in Aleppo proves the ability of the Syrian army to open multiple fronts at once," the military source said.

Noah Bonsey, a Syria expert at the International Crisis Group, said the offensive represented a potentially serious escalation by Assad.

"If the regime were able to take these villages, and if it can hold them and break the siege on Nubol and Zahraa, these would be very significant developments taken together," he told AFP.

"But those are big ifs."

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