Monitors say Islamic State extremists in eastern Syria launched a fierce attack on government-held areas Saturday in the contested city of Deir Ezzor, killing at least 30 government fighters, militants and civilians.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the offensive came in waves of suicide attacks and rockets, as IS fighters battled to try to gain full control of territory linking their de facto capital of Raqqa in northern Syria with large swaths of IS-controlled territory in neighboring Iraq.
Government forces in Deir Ezzor, a divided city of 200,000 residents about halfway between Raqqa and the Iraq border, have been under siege by extremist fighters for nearly two years.
The IS attack, described as the largest assault on Syrian forces in the city in months, came as a large grouping of rebel forces fighting to topple the Damascus government announced support for peace talks brokered by Russia and Turkey. The talks are set to open January 23 in the Kazakh capital, Astana.
Astana agenda not clear
The planned talks are the latest effort to settle the long-running Syrian war, a conflict pitting Sunni rebel groupings against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, his Russian allies and Iran-backed Shi'ite forces.
For its part, the Saudi-based rebel High Negotiations Committee described the Astana meeting as a preliminary step expected to pave the way for United Nations-sponsored peace talks set for February 8 in Geneva. The HNC participated in previous rounds of Geneva talks aimed at establishing humanitarian cease-fires in the war-ravaged country.
However, the Astana agenda remained clouded Saturday, and it was not clear which groupings have been invited to attend.
A top official in the incoming U.S. presidential administration of Donald Trump confirmed Friday that Russia had invited a Trump designee to attend the Astana meeting. However, there has been no formal response to the overture, and it remained unclear Saturday whether the Trump administration would participate.
Peace goals strained
Meanwhile, fresh fighting Saturday in the Idlib provincial town of Maarat Mastrin, in northwest Syria, killed at least eight people. Monitors said three other civilians, including a child, were killed nearby in government airstrikes on Friday.
The province is controlled by a rebel alliance that includes al-Qaida-linked jihadists who are excluded from a truce deal in effect elsewhere in the country since December 30.
New fighting was also reported near Damascus in the Wadi Valley, a fertile area that supplies the capital's 5.5 million residents with drinking water.
Details were sketchy late Saturday. But monitors said the fighting, aimed at driving opposition fighters from the area, came a day after rebels and government troops reached a deal allowing water access to the city to be restored.
Syrian Observatory chief Abdel Rahman told the French news agency AFP that government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies had triggered the new fighting with rocket fire. He said the barrage had come during a lull in fighting that has gripped the area since water supplies were contaminated by diesel fuel late last month.
The government linked the contamination to rebel sabotage. But the opposition said the contamination began after government airstrikes hit a key water-processing facility north of the capital.