Fighters of the Ansar al-Tawheed rebel group launched attacks against Syrian army posts in northwestern Syria, which they said killed at least 25 soldiers to avenge civilian deaths during recent army shelling.
Rebels of the Turkey-backed mainstream Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions told the Reuters news agency that dozens of rebels belonging to Ansar al-Tawheed attacked two major army checkpoints near the village of Masasneh in northern Hama province in a dawn attack on Sunday.
The army said in a statement that “a number of” its soldiers had been killed in attacks by “terrorists” and that bad weather had made the attacks easier.
Syrian state television showed several corpses, which Ansar al-Tawheed rebels said were the bodies of their suicide squads who had caught army troops off guard in an area close to the opposition-held territory.
Stepped up missile and rocket attacks on villages and towns in northern Hama and adjoining Idlib province have been blamed by residents for dozens of civilian deaths and injuries since the latest army campaign began early last month.
The recent escalation has targeted schools, mosques and bakeries and caused widespread damage to infrastructure, civil defence workers and hospital sources in opposition areas say according to Reuters.
‘Violation of buffer zone’
The army said a number of its fighters had been killed and injured and it sent a warning to the rebel group that it said “persisted” in violating the agreement on a buffer zone brokered last year by Syria’s main battlefield allies – Russia and Turkey.
“We will not idly stand by,” the army said in its statement quoted by state TV.
The Syrian foreign ministry issued a statement saying that the army was on “high readiness to repel such crimes and violations”.
Last September’s Sochi agreement staved off a Russian-backed assault on Idlib province, the last remaining opposition bastion, and now home to over 3 million people.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted by TASS news agency on Sunday as telling Turkey to live up to its commitments under the Sochi accord which requires banned groups to be expelled from a front-line buffer zone.
Both civilian-run opposition bodies and residents say the attacks have prompted thousands to flee from a number of front-line villages and towns, and have threatened a new exodus towards the Turkish border.
Khan Sheikhoun, which has borne the brunt of the recent rocket and missile attacks, has become a ghost town as most of its inhabitants fled to the safety of makeshift camps housing tens of thousands of people displaced after previous Russian and Syrian army air raids.