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HTS Special Forces Kill Regime Soldiers in Surprise Attack

Heavy bombardment and civilian casualties in Idlib as a result of the Syrian regime's frequent attacks have adversely affected life and are weakening the Sochi deal that was meant to stabilise the region. The regime has intensified air raids and artillery fire in Idlib since the beginning of the year, indiscriminately targeting residential areas including hospitals and schools under the pretext of "counterterrorism efforts." The attacks in the de-escalation zone are estimated to have killed at least 117 civilians and injured more than 342 others so far in 2019.

In the latest incident, four civilians were killed in attacks by regime forces and Iran-backed paramilitary groups on residential areas in Idlib late Sunday.

Mustafa Haj Yusuf, head of the White Helmets nongovernmental organisation (NGO) in the province, told Anadolu Agency (AA) that 51 rockets struck the town of Khan Shaykhun in Idlib's south, killing four and injuring six, including women and children.

In another attack on Sunday, regime forces also attacked a centre used by the White Helmets in Idlib, killing a civil defence worker, according to local sources. The attack was carried out in Marek district, which is located inside the Idlib de-escalation zone. The civil defence centre was heavily damaged and became unusable as a result of the attack, the sources said on the condition of anonymity due to restrictions on speaking to the media.

Turkey and Russia signed the Sochi agreement in September last year to decrease tensions and avoid new conflicts in the Idlib province. Since then, meetings between officials from the two countries have continued. While the existence of the former al-Qaida affiliated terrorist group, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib currently remains a vexing problem, Ankara has been pushing intense efforts for dissolving or demilitarising HTS.

Prior to the Sochi agreement, Syria's Bashar Assad regime was preparing for a full-scale attack on Idlib, the last opposition stronghold. It was feared that it would cause a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, which is home to about 3.5 million people, many of whom are internally displaced.

The attacks by the regime are not only causing civilians losses but also interrupting residents' daily life.

Last week, Mustafa Hajj Ali, a spokesman for Idlib's Education Directorate, told AA that education activities in districts such as Khan Sheikhoun, Marratinuman and Saraqib have been suspended due to the continued attacks.

"These attacks have resulted in the death of seven students and the injury of 40 others," he said.

Noting that 334 schools and education centres in civilian areas of southern Idlib had been temporarily closed, Hajj Ali asserted that some 80,000 students had been deprived of education as a consequence of the violence.

Meanwhile, the umbrella organisation of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (SNC), approved the resignation of the President of the Syrian Interim Government, Jawad Abu Hatab. Speaking on the issue, Abdurrahman Mustafa, head of SNC, told AA that a new president will be elected in a general assembly to be held in May.

New Assad statue triggers protest in Deraa

Despite more than eight years since the war first erupted, riots against the Syrian regime's brutalities continue nonstop. Hundreds of Syrians in the city of Deraa protested on Sunday at the erection of a new statue of Bashar Assad's late father.

Demonstrators and witnesses said residents walked through the streets of the war-ravaged old quarter of the city calling for Assad's overthrow, days before the eighth anniversary of the start of the conflict.

Deraa was where peaceful protests against 40 years of autocratic Assad family rule began in 2011 and were met by deadly force, before spreading across the country.

Reuters reported that the regime had given schools and government employees a day off on Sunday to attend a pro-government rally to inaugurate the new bronze statue of late president Hafez Assad, erected on the site of a previous statue felled by protesters.

US hails Morocco for repatriating citizens from Syria

Meanwhile, the U.S. on Sunday hailed Morocco for repatriating eight of its nationals from war-torn Syria. U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement that Rabat's actions "should encourage other nations to repatriate" foreign fighters from Syria, adding that the U.S. appreciates Morocco's commitment to fighting terrorism. "Repatriating foreign terrorists to their countries of origin is the best solution to prevent them from returning to the battlefield," the statement read.

The Moroccan interior minister announced earlier in the day that they had brought home eight nationals from "conflict zones" in war-torn Syria. The ministry said the returnees will be questioned over any possible connection to terrorism. Previously, the U.S. called on European countries to repatriate their citizens who had joined Daesh and recently remain captive in northern Syria. In February, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted: "The U.S. is asking Britain, France, Germany and other European allies to take back over 800 [Daesh] fighters that we captured in Syria and put them on trial.

The caliphate is ready to fall. The alternative is not a good one in that we will be forced to release them." However, the demand is being approached cautiously by European countries.

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