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May 29, 12:34 PM EDT

Syrian rebels counter IS offensive, retake 2 villages


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BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian rebels retook two villages from Islamic State militants Sunday as they fought to undo gains made by the extremist group in a surprise offensive days earlier, activists said.

Rebels retook the villages of Kafr Shoush and Braghida on Sunday, expanding their buffer around the rebel-held town of Azaz, home to tens of thousands of people displaced by war, according to the Local Coordination Committees, an activist network inside the country.

IS militants took Syrian rebels by surprise on Sunday when they launched an offensive that threatened to seize Azaz and isolate Marea, another rebel-held town north of the contested city of Aleppo.

More than 160,000 civilians have been trapped by the fighting. The international medical organization Doctors Without Borders evacuated one of the few remaining hospitals in the area.

The rebel pocket around Azaz, which connects to the Turkish border, is surrounded by IS militants to one side and the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to the other. Syria's Turkish and Saudi-backed rebels accuse the SDF of colluding with the government in the country's grinding civil war.

The IS advance prompted a rare deal between the SDF and rebels Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group. It said that the rebels surrendered control of a village near Marea to an SDF division in exchange for allowing 6,000 civilians to evacuate to areas under Kurdish control.

Yet rebels also shelled an SDF-held neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud in nearby Aleppo on Saturday, killing four people, the Observatory said.

Fighting continued between government forces, rebels and IS militants in other parts of the country Sunday.

Government forces shelled an opposition neighborhood of Homs, Syria's third largest city, local activists said. The Local Coordination Committees network said the strikes on the al-Waer neighborhood killed four people and injured 17, including a number of children. Local media activist Mohamad Sabai also reported the attack.

Al-Waer has been under government siege since 2013, according to the monitoring group Siege Watch. The U.N. humanitarian aid coordinator for Syria, Jan Egeland, said Thursday the situation inside was "horrendously critical."

The U.N. says nearly half a million people are trapped in sieges in the Syria war. The conflict began over five years ago as a protest movement calling for government reforms.

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