Syrian regime forces stepped up their offensive against Rankous ahead of an operation to retake the town, one of the last rebel-held regions in the Qalamoun area, an anti-regime activist group said Tuesday.
State news agency SANA said regime forces had taken a hilltop position overlooking Rankous and had seized a few neighborhoods of the town, killing a number of fighters from the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and other groups.
The Qalamoun region is strategic because it lies along the border with Lebanon and the main highway between Damascus and the city of Homs runs through it.
“The area of Rankous in Qalamoun has been under heavy shelling and continuous air raids since Monday, ahead of a plan to storm it,” Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel-Rahman told AFP.
Two rebels were killed in the clashes around Rankous, the Observatory later added, while helicopters dropped two crude barrel bombs on the town.
Abdel-Rahman said Hezbollah was leading the campaign in the region, where the army has gradually recaptured control of almost all areas formerly held by the rebels.
The offensive comes after the regime secured a major victory by capturing the rebel bastion of Yabroud nearby on March 15. With the fall of Yabroud, rebel forces lost most of their supply routes crossing the border into Lebanon.
Fierce clashes between regime forces and rebel groups also took place in more than half a dozen Syrian provinces. In fighting that pitted government troops and paramilitary allies against jihadist and rebel groups around the town of Kasab in Latakia province, the Observatory said 11 government fighters and six rebels were killed.
Monday’s nationwide death toll stood at 234 people, including 195 fighters from the various sides.
Meanwhile, the Tawhid Brigade, a member of the Islamic Front alliance of seven conservative militias, posted a video purporting to show that it had taken an Iranian woman prisoner.
The short interview with the woman did not explain the reasons for her detention or why she was in Syria. She asked her government to negotiate for her release.
In New York, accusations made by the U.N. human rights chief about Damascus’ responsibility for human rights violations caused Syria’s envoy to label her a “lunatic.”
Navi Pillay said violations by Syrian government forces “far outweigh” those by armed opposition groups. Pillay briefed the 15-member U.N. Security Council on the human rights situations in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Mali and Libya. She again called for the situation in Syria, which has been ravaged by a three-year civil war, to be referred to the International Criminal Court. Pillay said monitors in her office and investigators with the U.N. commission of inquiry in Syria, led by Paulo Pinheiro, had consistently blamed both parties to the Syrian conflict for human rights violations “but you cannot compare the two.”
“Clearly the actions of the forces of the government far outweigh the violations” by rebels, Pillay told reporters. “It’s the government that is mostly responsible for the violations and all these perpetrators should be identified and can if there’s a referral to the International Criminal Court.”
“There has to be justice and accountability and the situation in Syria should not be allowed to slip through the cracks,” she said after briefing the Security Council.
The council has so far been unable to refer Syria to the ICC because Russia is opposed to the move, diplomats say.
Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari dismissed Pillay’s accusations as false and lacking credibility because Pillay and U.N. investigators had not visited Syria during the conflict.
“[Pillay] has become lunatic in her action and is behaving irresponsibly,” Jaafari said. “She’s manipulating, bluffing the truth and she is biased. She is using her position in favor of making further pressure on the Syrian government. She doesn’t have any credible information with regard to what’s going on in Syria.”
Pillay told the council that her office was due to issue a report later this week documenting torture by both government forces and opposition groups, said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity.
She recounted to the council the case of a 26-year-old woman who was tortured by government forces, the diplomat said. The woman was hung against a wall for three days, some of her teeth were pulled out and she was sexually assaulted.
In a report to the U.N. Human Rights Council last month, Pinheiro’s investigators said they have expanded their list of suspected war criminals from both sides and the evidence was solid enough to prepare an indictment.
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