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Syria regime forces take full control of key town — monitor

By AFP - Aug 21,2019 - Last updated at Aug 21,2019

A Syrian government tank drives next to a building near the town of Khan Sheikhun in the southern countryside of the rebel-held Idlib province on August 18 (AFP photo)

BEIRUT — The Syrian army took full control of the key northwestern town of Khan Sheikhun on Wednesday, surrounding Turkish forces at a nearby observation post, a war monitor said.

"Regime forces took full control of the town of Khan Sheikhun and are currently clearing it of mines," said Syrian Observatory for Human Rights chief Rami Abdel Rahman.

The Syrian army now "surrounded an area stretching from the south of Khan Sheikhun into northern Hama province, cutting off all roads out" for Turkish troops in the nearby town of Morek, he said.

The advance came after days of heavy fighting against extremists who control the Idlib region. It has been administered since January by the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham alliance, which is led by extremists from Syria's former Al Qaeda affiliate.

The region of some three million people was supposed to be protected by a buffer zone deal signed last September by Moscow and rebel backer Ankara, but government and Russian forces have subjected it to heavy bombardment since late April.

Around 890 civilians have been killed since then, according to the Britain-based observatory.

More than 400,000 people have been displaced by the fighting over the same period, the United Nations says.

In recent weeks, the Syrian army has inched forward at the southern edges of the bastion.

On Tuesday, extremists pulled back from Khan Sheikhun and the countryside to its south, said the observatory, which has a network of sources across Syria.

Wednesday’s advance raises the stakes in a showdown between Syria and Turkey, whose Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has vowed to “do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of our soldiers and observation posts”.

Moscow claimed extremist attacks against a key Russian air base to the west of Idlib and on regime-held civilian areas had continued despite the presence of the Turkish posts.

The Syrian regime has accused Turkey of backing terrorists.

Retaking Khan Sheikhun has long been a key government objective, as the town lies on the highway connecting Damascus to second city Aleppo.

A Turkish military convoy crossed the border into Idlib on Monday and headed south along the highway, drawing condemnation from Damascus.

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