In Syria Deadly clashes grip flashpoint area near capital

Syrian government troops lost ground to the Islamic State group near the key Deir Ezzor military airport.

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Syrian children play next to a ruined buidling in the rebel-held town of Douma on the eastern outskirts of Damascus on January 9, 2017 play

Syrian children play next to a ruined buidling in the rebel-held town of Douma on the eastern outskirts of Damascus on January 9, 2017

(AFP/File)
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Heavy fighting gripped a flashpoint region near Syria's capital on Sunday, leaving nine civilians dead and threatening a nationwide truce designed to pave the way towards peace talks.

Further east, Syrian government troops lost ground to the Islamic State group near the key Deir Ezzor military airport.

The escalating violence augurs ill for peace negotiations in Kazakhstan later this month.

In the Wadi Barada region northwest of Damascus, fresh clashes broke out between rebel groups and advancing government forces, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Regime shelling of the Deir Qanun village killed nine civilians including at least three children, the Britain-based monitor said in an updated toll.

Another 20 people were wounded in the attack.

Syria play

Syria

(AFP)

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said it was the "highest toll" there since the truce came into force on December 30.

Omar al-Shami, spokesman for the Wadi Barada Media Committee, gave a toll of 12 killed and said shells struck a temporary shelter where displaced women and children had been seeking refuge.

The activist group published gruesome pictures of what it said was the aftermath of the attack, including photographs of blood-stained floors and body parts wrapped in blankets.

Fighting has persisted for weeks in Wadi Barada, which is the main source of water for the capital.

Locals struck a truce with Syrian authorities on Friday to allow maintenance teams into Wadi Barada to restore water to Damascus, but the deal was called off after chief negotiator Ahmed al-Ghadban was killed the next day.

Deal 'null'

Both sides accused each other of assassinating the retired army officer, who had only assumed his duties to restore the water supply on Saturday.

"The agreement was considered null this morning after the regime's multiple violations and especially after the killing of the negotiations official," Shami said.

Smoke billows from a rebel-held area of Daraa, in southern Syria, following reported shelling by pro-government forces on January 12, 2017 play

Smoke billows from a rebel-held area of Daraa, in southern Syria, following reported shelling by pro-government forces on January 12, 2017

(AFP/File)

Shami told AFP the government's maintenance workers left Wadi Barada without completing the repairs, leaving 5.5 million people in Damascus and its suburbs without water.

An official from the reconciliation ministry earlier said the local deal in Wadi Barada "had not completely collapsed".

"We are communicating and pursuing new efforts in parallel with the ongoing military action," the official said.

Many battlefronts have quieted since the nationwide ceasefire brokered by regime backer Russia and opposition ally Turkey.

The deal excludes IS and its jihadist rival, the Fateh al-Sham Front -- formerly the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front.

On Sunday, IS fighters edged closer to Deir Ezzor military airport, despite heavy air strikes by government warplanes.

The Observatory said Sunday raids in Deir Ezzor killed five civilians, including two women and two children.

It was the second day of the jihadist group's brutal assault on regime-held territory around the city.

US invited to Astana

It came despite more than 120 regime air strikes as well as heavy artillery fire, said Abdel Rahman.

People pose on the Charles bridge during a solidarity civil march for Aleppo on January 15, 2017 in Prague play

People pose on the Charles bridge during a solidarity civil march for Aleppo on January 15, 2017 in Prague

(AFP)

A military source told AFP that Russian warplanes had carried out "a series of air strikes" around the airport and on several nearby hilltops.

IS unleashed a wave of tunnel bombs and suicide attacks against government forces on Saturday, leaving 12 government fighters dead.

Another 20 IS jihadists were killed in clashes.

The group has lost swathes of territory in northern Syria to Kurdish fighters as well as to a Turkish-backed rebel alliance, but it remains on the offensive in other parts of the country.

In addition to its push in Deir Ezzor, IS recently recaptured Palmyra in central Syria from government forces.

Syria's conflict began with protests against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 but has since morphed into a multi-front war.

Although they support opposing sides in the war, Moscow and Ankara worked closely to negotiate the nationwide truce and are preparing talks in the Kazakh capital Astana set for January 23.

US president-elect Donald Trump's transition team has been invited to take part, but has not yet officially responded.

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