DAMASCUS, March 3 (Xinhua) — The Syrian army responded to a heavy rebel attack before the crack of dawn on Sunday in areas in the northern countryside of Hama province in central Syria, the Syrian army said in a statement.

The attackers targeted several military positions in northern Hama countryside, which are included in the de-escalation zones’ deal established last September.

The rebels used various weapons and took advantage of the bad and stormy weather conditions, said the Syrian army, adding that the Syrian forces responded to the attack with bravery and inflicted a big toll on the assailants.

The army said a number of Syrian soldiers were killed in the confrontation without giving a number.

It stressed the Syrian army’s readiness to respond to the attacks of the rebels in the areas that are still witnessing rebel presence in Syria.

Meanwhile, the state news agency SANA posted photos of slain rebel militants who were killed in the battles in the northern countryside of Hama.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said at least 20 Syrian soldiers were killed by rebels’ attack Sunday.

The rebels infiltrated government-controlled area in the countryside of Hama, engaging in battles with the Syrian forces, killing 20 while five of the assailants were killed, according to the Observatory.

The UK-based watchdog group said the attackers withdrew, adding that the death toll could likely rise as many are in critical conditions.

The targeted area is included in the de-escalation zone’s deal reached by Turkey and Russia late last year.

Syrian state media report the targeting of rebels infiltrating government-controlled areas in Hama almost on daily basis.

The rebels in Idlib province and the nearby countryside of Hama have repeatedly violated the de-escalation zone deal amid a report that that Syrian army is bracing for a wide-scale campaign in Idlib.

Earlier on Sunday, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper said the preparations of the Syrian army have caused confusion among the militants of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the umbrella group of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, which controls Idlib.

This situation has been coupled with a state of lawlessness in Idlib where assignations and explosions are on the rise.

The report said that 50 people were killed and wounded over the past two days in Idlib as a result of the deteriorating security situation.

The report said that the Syrian army is serious about launching the campaign as the army is targeting the supply routes of the HTS and bringing in reinforcement to the frontlines.

Turkey and Russia brokered a deal in last September to impose a demilitarized zone in Idlib and its surrounding areas. However, the deal wasn’t fully implemented as the HTS was supposed to withdraw from the zone but it didn’t.

On the contrary, the HTS expanded and controlled the entire Idlib area.

Throughout the last couple of years, Idlib has emerged as the main destination and stronghold for the rebels fleeing other parts of Syrian through deals or surrender.

Idlib is also of strategic significance as it shares a border area with Turkey in the north and neighbors the coastal province of Latakia, the hometown of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Notably, the namesake capital city of Idlib lies close to the international road linking the capital Damascus with the northern province of Aleppo.

Idlib is home to around 3.5 million people, including those who evacuated other Syrian areas after the surrender of rebels.

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