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Syrian rebels advance towards key airport in Hama province

Syrian rebels pressed on with a fresh advance in the central province of Hama, as they bid to take out its military airport, a rebel commander and a monitor said Tuesday (July 29).

BEIRUT: Syrian rebels pressed on with a fresh advance in the central province of Hama, as they tried to take out its military airport, a rebel commander and a monitor said on Tuesday (July 29).

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

A rebel leader in the area, Yusef al-Hassan, said Hama military airport was important because "that is where the regime makes its barrel bombs, and warplanes take off from there to carry out air strikes on (opposition-held) areas across Syria".

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 regime control, on Monday night. The takeover of the checkpoint at 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 regime-controlled Christian and Alawite villages in the west of the province, he added.

According to Hassan, the regime is sending reinforcements. "They are stepping up their troop presence here, which will limit the regime's capabilities in other areas, such as Aleppo", said the rebel commander, who spoke to AFP via the Internet.

As for the military airport: "We are already striking it with Grad missiles", said Hassan. The air force has used barrel bombs - which are manufactured in Hama military airport - to strike opposition-controlled areas across Syria for months.

In Aleppo alone, air strikes since December including barrel bomb attacks have killed hundreds of civilians, among them children, and forced thousands of families to flee, as the regime has unleashed a massive aerial offensive there.

Rights groups have hit out at the regime for its use of barrel 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 in the south on Monday killed an elderly man, his daughter and her three grandchildren, said the Observatory.

Syria's war has killed more than 170,000 people and forced nearly half the population to flee. At least 113 people were killed on Monday, the day of the Eid feast marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, according to the Observatory.

Meanwhile, international aid organisation Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said late Monday that 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.

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