Syrian regime fighters pushed further into a jihadist-run bastion in the northwest part of the country on Wednesday, inching towards a key town after months of deadly bombardment, a monitor said, France24 reported.
Eight years into Syria’s civil war, the jihadist-run region of Idlib is the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Airstrikes and rocket fire by the regime and its ally Russia have pounded Idlib for more than three months, killing hundreds and displacing tens of thousands.
In the south of the stronghold, almost all residents of Khan Sheikhun, which lies on a key highway coveted by the regime, have left the town. The road in question runs through Idlib, connecting government-held Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which was retaken by loyalists from rebels in December 2016.
After a week of ground advances, Assad’s fighters were just a few kilometers away from the town on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
“Regime forces are now four kilometers (2.5 miles) from Khan Sheikhun to the west, with nothing between them and it but fields,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.
To the east, pro-Assad fighters are battling to control a hill just six kilometers (less than four miles) from the town, the head of the Britain-based Observatory said.
Clashes on Wednesday have killed 14 regime forces, as well as 20 jihadists and seven allied rebels, he said.
State news agency SANA on Wednesday said army troops had taken several villages from the jihadists and rebels in the area west of Khan Sheikhun.
AFP correspondents have reported seeing dozens of families flee fighting over the past few days, heading north in trucks piled high with belongings.
A buffer zone deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last year was supposed to protect the Idlib region’s three million inhabitants from an all-out regime offensive, but it was never fully implemented. Regime and Russian airstrikes and shelling since late April have killed almost 820 civilians, the Observatory says.