BEIRUT: Syrian rebels intensified attacks Tuesday on the last remaining government forces in the northwestern province of Idlib, raining shells and mortars on two predominantly Shiite villages, activists said.
Meanwhile, Syrian authorities have arrested a relative of President Bashar Assad on suspicion of shooting a senior army officer in a traffic dispute — a slaying that set off rare protests in a coastal stronghold of the Assad family.
A coalition of rebel groups progressively has eroded Assad’s presence in Idlib province, taking the city of Idlib, followed by the strategic town of Jisr al-Shughour in late March.
The alliance, which calls itself Jaysh al-Fateh, or Conquest Army, is pushing toward the last government strongholds, Foua and Kfarya, home to Shiite populations where a large number of civilians are trapped. A nearby military air base remains under government control.
Activists said the rebels reached the entrances to the town of Foua, north of Idlib city, after detonating an underground tunnel.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rebels fired over 1,400 artillery shells and mortars on Foua and Kfarya, killing at least 20 people, including eight civilians.
The Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah group is fighting the rebel advances, alongside other Shiite militias and the Syrian army.
Meanwhile, the state-run news agency SANA late Monday quoted Latakia’s Gov. Khodr al-Salem saying Suleiman Assad, a son of the president’s first cousin, Hilal, was arrested at a farm in the province’s countryside for allegedly killing a motorist.
Suleiman Assad had been on the run since he allegedly killed the army officer in a road rage incident several days ago. The killing sparked mass protests in Latakia, where more than 1,000 people took to the streets calling for his execution.