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Syrian army shells areas held by insurgents in northwest

Artillery shelling by government forces pounded parts of the northwestern Idlib province on Saturday, thwarting an infiltration attempt by militants as tension rises in the region following victories by al-Qaida-linked militants against Turkey-backed opposition fighters, Syria's state news agency reported.

The violence came as officials in neighboring Turkey said efforts are being exerted to maintain stability in Idlib.

SANA said the shelling focused on the areas of Zarzour near the border with Turkey and Tamanaa near Maaret al-Numan that was taken this week by al-Qaida-linked militants from Turkey-backed opposition fighters. It reported casualties among the militants.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the government shelled six areas in and near Idlib province.

Earlier this month, members of the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Arabic for Levant Liberation Committee, or HTS, took over control of Idlib province and the surrounding countryside after forcing rival insurgents to accept a deal for a civil administration run by HTS in their areas.

The developments threaten to derail a cease-fire in the area reached in September between Turkey and Russia that averted a potentially catastrophic Syrian army assault on Idlib.

The deal required jihadist groups to vacate a frontline buffer zone, a move that was never implemented by al-Qaida-linked militants.

Earlier Saturday, Turkey's defense minister met with commanders and the head of the country's intelligence services in the southern Hatay province bordering Syria's restive Idlib.

"All efforts are being made to continue stability and the ceasefire in line with the Sochi agreement," said Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, referring to a September agreement between Turkey and Russia to set up a buffer zone in Idlib. "Our close cooperation with Russia on this issue continues," the minister said.

Turkey's official Anadolu news agency said Turkish troops dispatched from units across the country were undergoing training at the border in Hatay.

The Syrian government has repeatedly threatened to launch an offensive to recapture Idlib province, which is packed with 3 million people, including many who were displaced from other parts of the country.

The latest advances by the HTS, which include many foreign fighters, raise questions over the future of the deal.

In the capital Damascus, the Foreign Ministry sent two letters to the U.N. Secretary-General and the President of the U.N. Security Council over Israel's airstrikes that hit areas south of the city the night before.

"This treacherous aggression comes within the framework of Israeli attempts to prolong the crisis in Syria," the ministry said.

Israel did not comment on the airstrikes, the first this year, that Syrian state media said hit a warehouse near Damascus International Airport without inflicting casualties.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said airstrikes targeted an area near the airport while others hit the area of Kiswa, which is home to positions and storage sites for Iranian and Hezbollah forces allied with Syria's government.

Israel's outgoing army chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, told The New York Times in an interview published Friday that Israel "struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit." Eisenkot retires on Sunday.

Israel's government approved a change in tactics in January 2017, stepping up air strikes in Syria, Eisenkot was quoted as saying. Israel's air force dropped 2,000 bombs in 2018 alone, he said.

____

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

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