Syria rebels start operation to seize Hama -senior commander

BEIRUT, Dec 16 (Reuters) - Syrian rebels have launched an

operation to take control of the central province of Hama to try

to link the northern part of the country under their control to

the centre, a senior commander said on Sunday.

Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the newly established military

command, said that orders have been given to fighters to

surround and attack checkpoints across the province. He said

forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad at these checkpoints

were given 48 hours' ultimatum to surrender or face death.

"When we liberate the countryside of Hama province ... then

we will have the area between Aleppo and Hama liberated and open

for us," he told Reuters.

Rebels in Hama said that clashes in the town of Helfaya

earlier on Sunday marked the beginning of the operation. They

attacked army checkpoints outside the town. Syrian government

forces used artillery and fighter jets in responding and killed

at least 25 people.

UNDERSTANDING THE SYRIA CONFLICT