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Regime troops push closer to major rebel-held northwest town

Local | 2019-08-14 14:01:00
Regime troops push closer to major rebel-held northwest town
A Syrian activist group and state-controlled media say that regime forces have captured two northwestern villages, inching closer to a major rebel-held town.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked activist group, says Syrian troops captured the villages of Tel Aas and Kfar Eean early Wednesday. The villages are just west of the rebel stronghold of Khan Sheikhoun, a town in opposition hands since 2014. A rebel commander said it was in "great danger".

Regime forces were now 4 km from Khan Sheikhoun, Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said.

The sarin gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun in 2017 killed dozens of people and prompted President Donald Trump to order a missile strike against the Syrian air base from where the United States said the attack had been launched.

An investigation conducted by the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the Syrian government was responsible for releasing sarin on the town on April 4, 2017. Damascus denies using such weapons.

The northwestern Idlib region is part of the last major stronghold of the opposition to President Bashar Assad. The rebels that control it include the powerful militant group Tahrir al-Sham and Turkey-backed factions.

Assad's side had struggled to make any gains in the area in an offensive that got under way in late April. But since the collapse of a brief ceasefire this month, it has managed to take several significant positions, including the town of al-Habeet on Saturday.

Tuesday's clashes between regime loyalists and insurgents in rebel-held northwest Syria killed 60 combatants.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, has since January controlled most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighbouring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

Several other armed rebel groups also operate in the region.

Fighting in southern Idlib and rural Latakia Tuesday claimed the lives of 29 pro-regime forces as well as 30 jihadists and allied rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It came as regime warplanes pummeled the Idlib region with air strikes, killing three civilians in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the Britain-based monitor added.

In their turn, rebels on Tuesday said a Russian drone had fallen in the Ghab Plain in northwestern Hama province.

The three-month offensive has made slower progress than any by Assad since Russia entered the war on his side in 2015, prompting a run of military victories that have brought most of Syria back under his rule.

Rebels fighting to oust him are now concentrated in the northwestern enclave, covering most of Idlib province and parts of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia provinces, though they also have a small presence in the southeast near the border with Jordan.

The northwest offensive has prompted warnings by the United Nations and aid agencies of a new humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people having fled the violence to seek shelter at the border with Turkey.

The regime military air strikes have targeted hospitals, schools, water points, markets, bakeries and other civilian infrastructure, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Mumtzis, has said.

Since the beginning of northwest Syria offensive late April, regime airstrikes have killed more than 850 civilians and displaced more than 440,000.

The Russian intervention in Syria was officially announced on Sept. 30, 2015, after an official request by the Assad regime for military aid against rebel groups.

Syria's war has killed more than 560,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests. Zaman Al Wasl, Agencies

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