FOREIGN jihadists launched a major offensive in central Syria yesterday even as the army expanded its bridgehead across the River Euphrates.
The al-Qaida-linked Hetesh alliance attacked the heavily fortified town of Ma’an in Hama province, south of the insurgent stronghold of Idlib in the north-west.
Chinese Uyghur separatists of the Turkistan Islamic Party joined the assault on the town on the east side of a bulge in the front lines.
The official Sana news agency said that Syrian troops and allied militia fought off the assault by heavily armed fighters, destroying two enemy tanks and two machine-gun vehicles and capturing an armoured personnel carrier.
Ma’an has been largely evacuated since a 2014 sectarian massacre of civilians.
Last month, Hetesh tried to break through to relieve Isis forces — previously its sworn enemies — encircled by the army in eastern Hama.
Meanwhile, troops liberated two villages from the death cult on the east bank of the Euphrates opposite Deir Ezzor, the eastern city recently freed from a four-year siege by the jihadists.
The army bridged the Euphrates last weekend. Previously the US and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia it backs had tried to set the river as a red line.
The coalition claimed then that a Russian air strike had hit SDF units advancing on Deir Ezzor from the north, allegedly wounding several of the fighters, who were accompanied by US commandoes.
On Monday, coalition spokesman Colonel Ryan Dillon said the SDF were now in permanent radio contact with the army to prevent further incidents, adding that the militia was not trying to enter the city.
On the west bank of the Euphrates, troops closed in on the last Isis-occupied districts, now themselves under siege, and pushed north along the river in a bid to encircle another pocket of Isis territory.
Meanwhile, the first humanitarian aid flights landed at Deir Ezzor airport, which was cut off from the city last year by a Isis assault following a sustained bombing raid on army positions.
On the sidelines of a UN general assembly meeting in New York on Monday, the “Friends of Syria” group of countries and organisations vowed that they would not help with post-war reconstruction unless their demand for regime change in Damascus was met.