Jihadist groups say they have stepped up attacks against Syrian army

FILE PHOTO: A general view of a camp for internally displaced people, in northern rebel-held Idlib

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) - Jihadist rebel fighters raided several Syrian army posts on Wednesday, rebels and army officials said, in a flare-up of hit-and-run attacks this year in the last opposition-held bastion in northwestern Syria.

More than three million people live in the area, which has become a refuge for many of the displaced, including Turkish-backed rebel fighters and their families who left areas seized by the Russian-backed Syrian army.

The conflict, which began with peaceful protests in 2011, escalated into a civil war that drew in foreign powers and caused the largest displacement crisis since World War Two.

Islamist Jamaat al Tawhid, a rebel group associated with the main jihadist group Hayat Tahir al Sham, said their fighters had waged a suicide attack on the frontlines of Marat Muhas in southern Idlib province, near the border with Turkey.

"Our Mujahdeen were able to raid a number of enemy outposts and several of them were killed," said Abu Hamza, a member of the group, adding the group used heavy weapons and rockets in its biggest strike this year.

Hayat Tahrir al Sham said it had increased raids and suicide attacks in the last three months against both Syrian army and Russian army outposts along the frontlines in northwestern Syria.

Its leader Abu Mohammad al Golani vowed this month to continue fighting the Syrian army and its allies days after the highest level talks in public between Ankara and the Damascus government since the Syrian war began in 2011.

The rapprochement led opposition rebel groups to worry that Turkey would abandon them. Turkey provides weapons and deploys thousands of troops in rebel territory that has prevented the Russian-backed Syrian army from advancing.

The Syrian army statement said it repulsed the attacks in hours-long clashes that killed or injured 12 attackers.

The army statement said Russian troops recently helped it destroy several "terrorist" training centres in rebel-held parts of Idlib.

Residents in the area said Syrian army outposts shelled several villages in the Jabal al Zawaya highland area nearby in what appeared as retaliation for the Marat Muhas attacks, leaving killing at least one civilian killed and wounding several.

War planes that were believed to be Russian coming from a main base along the Syrian Mediterranean coast were flying at a high altitude but were not involved in the fighting, rebel sources said.

Another jihadist group, Ahar al Sham, also attacked several outposts of the Syrian army in the adjoining western Aleppo countryside in the last week, according to two rebel sources.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Josie Kao)