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Regime forces advance towards key town in northwest Syria

By AFP - Aug 14,2019 - Last updated at Aug 14,2019

Syrian families from the southeastern Idlib province and the northern countryside of Hama fleeing battles with trucks loaded with their belongings, drive past a flock of sheep on the highway, near Maaret Al Numan in the southern Idlib province, on Wednesday (AFP photo)

BEIRUT — Regime fighters pushed further into an extremist-run bastion in northwest Syria on Wednesday, inching towards a key town after months of bombardment, a monitor said.

Eight years into Syria's civil war, the extremist-run region of Idlib is the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar Assad's regime.

In the south of the stronghold, almost all residents of Khan Sheikhoun — which lies on a key highway coveted by the government — 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 in December 2016.

After a week of ground advances, Assad's fighters were just a few kilometres away from the town on Wednesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Regime forces are now four kilometres from Khan Sheikhoun 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 kilometres from the town, the head of the Britain-based observatory said.

Clashes on Wednesday have killed 14 regime forces, as well as 20 extremists, he said.

State news agency SANA on Wednesday said army troops had taken several villages from the extremists in the area west of Khan Sheikhoun.

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.

An alliance led by fighters from Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate — Hayat Tahrir Al Sham — took over full control of the anti-Assad stronghold in May.

Humanitarian workers have warned that any fully-blown ground attack on Idlib would cause one of the worst humanitarian disasters of Syria’s war.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since starting in 2011.

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