Russian, Syrian officials deny their planes hit refugee camp
BEIRUT (AP) -- Russian and Syrian officials denied Friday that their aircraft struck a camp for people displaced by fighting in an airstrike that killed 28 the previous evening. The denials came as activists said a coalition of rebels and militants, including Syria's al-Qaida branch, seized a strategic village from pro-government forces near the contested city of Aleppo.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, some 73 fighters - 43 on the opposition side and 30 pro-government troops - have died since Thursday afternoon in the battle for the village of Khan Touman. The advance signals a reemergence of a powerful, ultraconservative coalition on the opposition's side in the Syria conflict.
A Syrian military official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, denied the army had carried out any operation against the Sarmada refugee camp on Thursday, where 28 people died, including women and children, and dozens were wounded. The official said all reports about the attack are false.
A Russian military official said Friday that no Russian or any other aircraft made flights over the camp in Sarmada, home to about 2,000 internally displaced people who fled the fighting from the surrounding Aleppo and Hama provinces over the past year.
Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies that the Russian military had closely studied data from an air space monitoring system and determined that no aircraft had flown over the camp on Wednesday or Thursday.
Konashenkov said the destruction seen on photographs and videos suggested the camp could have been shelled, whether intentionally or by mistake, from multiple rocket launchers that the Syrian al-Qaida affiliate, known as the Nusra Front, has been using in the area.
Meanwhile, renewed fighting broke out Friday around the village of Khan Touman, the Observatory reported. Fighter jets, presumed to belong to either Syria or its powerful ally Russia, were launching strikes on opposition positions.
Leading the opposition side was the coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah, or Army of Conquest, an ultraconservative group led by the Nusra Front, and the jihadi Jund al-Aqsa and Ahrar al-Sham. The Observatory said other non-jihadi factions were fighting at Khan Touman on the side of the coalition, as well.
The Army of Conquest seized Idlib, a strategic and symbolically important provincial capital, from government forces last year and threatened to make advances towards government strongholds on the Mediterranean coast and toward the capital, Damascus. Russia intervened militarily on the side of the government partly in response to that threat.
But the coalition is internally divided over who it considers enemies and how it rules areas under its control.
"The ... Jund al-Aqsa brigade is ideologically close to Daesh," said Britain-based Syrian activist Asaad Kanjo, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, a top rival of al-Qaida in Syria. Kanjo followed the coalition's politics when he was living in Saraqib, in Idlib province.
Both the Islamic State and the Nusra Front have been designated terror groups by the United Nations and were not included in a cease-fire that went into effect in late February.
The cease-fire revealed further divisions in the Army of Conquest. Jund al-Aqsa and Nusra Front fighters suppressed popular demonstrations across Idlib province against the black Jihadist flag, and moderate rebel factions seized on the discontent to try to sideline the militants within the opposition. The political shifts split the allegiances of the internally-divided Ahrar al-Sham group.
But the recent collapse of the cease-fire and resumption of hostilities in April appears to have reunified the anti-government opposition.
Khan Touman is just 6 kilometers (4 miles) from Aleppo, Syria's largest city and onetime commercial capital. It overlooks the main route between Damascus and Aleppo, parts of which remain under opposition control.
"It is part of the government's defensive line in south Aleppo," said Observatory's chief, Rami Abdurrahman.
Aleppo-area opposition media activist Bahaa al-Halaby said the opposition fighters took control of Khan Touman around 7 a.m. Friday morning.
Meanwhile, militant websites published photos said to be taken from the Shaer gas field district in central Homs province, showing Islamic State militants helping themselves to a large government weapons cache, including tanks and military vehicles.
The vital gas fields, which were in government hands, fell to the extremist fighters Wednesday.
In the central city of Hama, some 800 inmates - including political prisoners - continued their days-long strike as government forces began storming the prison using tear gas on Friday evening, the Observatory and a prisoner speaking from inside the prison said. Authorities had earlier cut electricity to the prison and prevented food from getting in, the Observatory added.
The opposition's High Negotiations Committee called on international aid groups to help those in the central prison of Hama.
"They are firing live bullets and tear gas inside ... we are unarmed," said one of the prisoners, speaking in an audio message sent to The Associated Press by phone. He also sent two video clips showing men having breathing problems, apparently after inhaling tear gas. He declined to give his name, fearing for his safety.
The Observatory said live bullets were being used in the operation, adding that some of the prisoners have fainted because of tear gas. Abdurrahman said there were no casualties in the riots.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Bassem Mroue and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.