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Syria regime forces on edge of key rebel-held town — monitor

By AFP - Jan 27,2020 - Last updated at Jan 27,2020

A Russian army helicopter flies over the town of Tal Tamr in the north-eastern Syrian Hasakeh province on the border with Turkey on Sunday (AFP photo)

BEIRUT — Syrian regime forces have reached the outskirts of a key city on the edge of the country's last rebel-held stronghold, a monitor and a pro-government newspaper said on Sunday.

The mainly deserted city of Maaret Al Numan is a strategic prize lying on the M5 linking Damascus to Syria's second city Aleppo, a main highway coveted by the regime as it seeks to regain control of the entire country.

It is one of the largest urban centres in the beleaguered northwestern province of Idlib, the last stronghold of anti-regime forces and home to some 3 million people — half of them displaced by violence in other areas.

The regime and its Russian ally have escalated their bombardment against the extremist-dominated region since December, carrying out hundreds of air strikes in southern Idlib and the west of neighbouring Aleppo province.

Over the past 24 hours, government ground forces have seized seven villages on the outskirts of Maaret Al Numan, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday.

They have now reached “the edges of the city and are... within gunfire range of part of the highway”, the Britain-based war monitor added.

Pro-regime newspaper Al Watan reported that loyalist forces were “just around the corner” from the city, whose “doors are wide open”.

Idlib and nearby areas of Hama, Aleppo and Latakiya provinces are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) extremist group, led by members of the country’s former Al Qaeda franchise.

The regime of President Bashar Assad has repeatedly vowed to reassert control over the whole of Syria, despite several ceasefire agreements. 

An AFP correspondent says Maaret Al Numan has become a ghost town.

Assad’s forces, which are also battling HTS extremists in western Aleppo province, are backed on both fronts by Syrian and Russian air strikes.

Since December 1, some 358,000 Syrians have been displaced from their homes in Idlib, the vast majority of them women and children, according to the United Nations.

The UN says an additional 38,000 people fled violence in western Aleppo between 15 and 19 January.

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Sunday condemned the escalation in the two provinces, warning of its impact on civilians.

“Every day thousands are forced to flee, going on a perilous journey with no shelter, little food and limited healthcare,” it said on Twitter.

“All they want is to keep themselves and their children alive.”

A ceasefire announced by Moscow earlier this month was supposed to protect Idlib from further attacks, but the truce never took hold.

Aid agencies and relief groups have warned that further violence could fuel what may potentially become the largest wave of displacement seen during Syria’s nine-year-old civil war.

Syrian government forces now control around 70 per cent of the country and Assad has repeatedly vowed to retake Idlib.

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