Syria's Bashar al-Assad hugs troops in rare public appearance

Kurdish Iraqi forces launch a major operation to retake the militant-held town of Sinjar in northern Iraq, part of a push to secure the road that leads directly to the Syrian border.

Conflict killed 76,021 people in 2014, just under half of them civilian

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he expected the civil war in his country, which has already killed 200,000 people, to be long and difficult. (SANA/Associated Press)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited a district on the outskirts of Damascus and thanked soldiers fighting "in the face of terrorism", his office said on Twitter late on Wednesday, posting pictures of the rare trip.

Syrian television on Thursday aired footage of the New Year visit, accompanying it with patriotic music. It showed Assad talking to troops, embracing them and sharing a meal outside, in what was presented as a morale boost for soldiers on the frontline of the country's civil war.

The conflict killed 76,021 people in 2014, just under half of them civilians, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Thursday.

The United Nations says around 200,000 people have been killed since 2011. No group enjoys significant momentum going into 2015, and Assad said last month he expected the conflict to be long and difficult.

Assad, who is commander in chief, is not frequently pictured in public, though he has visited troops in the past, according to state media. The presidential website said the latest visit was to Jobar, northeast of Damascus.

"If there was an area of joy which remained in Syria, it is thanks to the victories that you achieved in the face of terrorism," Assad told troops, according to the Twitter account.

State news agency SANA said he "wished a speedy recovery to the wounded" and praised their sacrifices.

Distant bangs

Lebanese channel al-Mayadeen also showed footage of the trip. Several bangs could be heard in the distance but it was not clear what caused them.

Syrian forces have been trying to dislodge insurgents from Jobar, which was captured by anti-Assad fighters in 2013. While government forces control central Damascus, they have continued to face battles on the outskirts of the capital.

According to the human rights observatory, Jobar was the target of at least 10 raids by the Syrian air force on Wednesday, as well as strikes by ground missiles.

Neither the presidency account nor SANA said whether Syrian troops had gained control over all or just parts of the area.

The Observatory, which gathers information from sources on the ground, said pro-government forces in Jobar had clashed with fighters from rebel and Islamic battalions and al-Qaeda's Syria wing, Nusra Front.

In an update on Thursday, the Observatory said government forces had fired machine guns on areas of Jobar overnight and that three rockets landed in the area in the morning. It added that at least 25 pro-government fighters were killed and dozens wounded in the previous day's fighting. Syrian state media did not mention any casualties.

The conflict, which started with pro-democracy protests in 2011, has descended into a war pitting pro-government forces against numerous insurgent groups including Western-backed fighters, the Nusra Front and its ultra-hardline offshoot ISIS, who have also fought against each other.

U.S-led forces have been conducting airstrikes against Islamist militants in Syria since September.


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