BEIRUT Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of Syrian jihadist rebel groups, said on Tuesday it was launching a new offensive near the city of Hama in the central part of western Syria.
The group said on a social media feed that it had carried out two suicide car bomb attacks close to the town of Soran in the countryside north of Hama.
“The battle of Hama has begun, God be thanked,” the group said in a posting on a Telegram channel it uses.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said there had been big explosions heard in that area and that there were intense clashes between the army on one side and Tahrir al-Sham and some other jihadist groups on the other.
The jihadists gained control over several positions in the area around Soran and in a village just south of it called Maardas, the Observatory said.
Rebels including hardline Islamist groups that joined to form Tahrir al-Sham staged an offensive in northern Hama last year that led to territorial advances in the area near Soran.
Tahrir al-Sham includes the former Nusra Front group, which officially designated itself as the Syrian branch of al Qaeda until last year, when it ended its formal allegiance to the global jihadist organisation.
The Syrian army regained the town last October, according to a military source and war monitor, as part of a push back against insurgents that had lasted for weeks.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Shi’ite militia allies have put rebels fighting to oust him on the back foot over the past 18 months with a string of military victories.
Rebel groups including Tahrir al-Sham launched a new assault on Monday near to central parts of Damascus, where fierce fighting continues amid heavy bombardment.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Julia Glover)