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Al-Qaida linked fighters, Syrian troops clash near country’s last rebel stronghold

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Al-Qaida-linked fighters attacked Syrian government positions Sunday on the edge of the country’s last rebel stronghold, triggering intense clashes that killed nearly three dozen combatants across both sides, opposition activists said.

The fighting was among the worst since early March, when a agreement between Turkey and Russia halted the Syrian government’s three-month air and ground campaign into rebel-held northwestern Idlib province. Sunday’s clashes took place in neighbouring Hama province, parts of which are still under rebel control.

Russia is a main backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey backs opposition fighters trying to remove him from power. Russia and Turkey have become the main power brokers in war-torn Syria in recent years.

Horas al-Din are hardcore al-Qaida elements who broke away from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the strongest insurgent group in the Idlib enclave. Horas al-Din, Arabic for “Guardians of Religion,” reject any cease-fire with the government.

Syrian troops now control much of the country, with the help of Assad’s main backers Russia and Iran. The conflict, which began in March 2011, has killed more than 400,000 people.

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