Syrians close in on rebel bastion

Key mountain taken; aid delivered to Homs neighborhood

BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces captured a strategic mountain in the country's northwest on Wednesday, inching closer to a rebel-held stronghold in the coastal province of Latakia, state media and a monitoring group said.

State TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen took Noba Mountain in Latakia early Wednesday "after destroying the terrorists' positions and fortifications."

Government troops have been on the offensive in different parts of the country under the cover of Russian airstrikes, which began Sept. 30.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the taking of Noba Mountain opens the way for government forces toward the rebe stronghold of Salma. The activist group said government troops were backed by fighters from Lebanon's militant Hezbollah group, which sided with Assad in Syria's civil war.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV quoted one of its reporters, embedded with Syrian troops, as saying that government forces raised the Syrian flag on the mountain overlooking an array of rebel-held areas in Latakia.

Meanwhile, in the central Syrian city of Homs, a convoy of 18 trucks carrying food, medical supplies and construction material began entering the rebel-held neighborhood of Waer, said Pawel Krzysiek, a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Krzysiek said the convoy was organized by the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

A Red Cross statement released later Wednesday said it may take several days to deliver all the aid. It said the trucks are taking in food supplies for 40,000 people and hygiene kits for 60,000 people. In addition, medical items sufficient for 1,000 dialysis sessions for patients with severe kidney problems also will be part of the aid delivered.

"Hopefully, this is just the start," said Alexandre Equey, the deputy head of the Red Cross delegation in Syria. "We need to have regular access here and also to other areas, in order to help the people during these extremely difficult times."

Earlier this month, after a deal in Waer, a few hundred insurgents pulled out of the district in return for a cease-fire and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The United Nations presided over implementation of the deal, which allowed those leaving Waer safe passage to the north.

A few thousand rebels had been holed up in Waer, which Syrian government forces had blockaded for nearly three years, only sporadically allowing in food.

Hundreds of fighters are expected to leave Waer in the coming weeks and once the evacuation of the rebels is completed, the city of Homs will fully return to government control.

Also on Wednesday, the German military said it has flown its first mission in support of the U.S.-led coalition effort against the militant Islamic State in Syria.

The Germans said a German tanker aircraft had refueled two fighter jets in-air as they flew missions against the extremist group, the dpa news agency reported. A German frigate also has been providing protection to the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, and German Tornado reconnaissance jets are expected to begin flying surveillance missions in January.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged the support after France asked for help after the recent deadly terror attacks in Paris, which were claimed by the Islamic State.

Up to 1,200 troops are expected to be involved in the German mission, which the military said is an exclusively noncombat support deployment.

A Section on 12/17/2015

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