Damascus takes key town from jihadists: monitor

Beirut (AFP) –


Syrian government forces recaptured a northwestern town on Thursday from around which jihadists and allied rebels have launched rockets on their Russian ally's key airbase, a monitor said.

The capture of the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, on the southwestern edge of the jihadist-controlled Idlib region, comes after weeks of intensified air strikes and shelling by pro-government and Russian forces.

Intense bombardment caused the jihadists and Islamist rebels to flee, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"Rockets have been fired on the Hmeimim airbase" from the area around the town, Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The Russian airbase in the coastal province of Latakia has come under repeated rocket fire and Moscow has also accused armed groups of launching weaponised drones against it.

In the latest attack on Monday, 36 rockets were fired at Hmeimim, but were intercepted without causing any casualties or damage, the Russian defence ministry said.

The recapture of Qalaat al-Madiq comes after government forces retook the nearby town of Kafr Nabouda on Wednesday, pro-government newspaper Al-Watan and the Observatory said.

Overnight and early Thursday, government and Russian aircraft also struck two other nearby towns, Hobait and Khan Sheikhun, the Observatory said.

Russia signed a buffer zone deal with rebel backer Turkey in September to avert a broad government offensive on the Idlib region, which would have a potentially devastating impact on its three million people.

But Turkey failed to deliver on the agreed withdrawal of extremist factions from the planned buffer zone and, in January, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, which is dominated by jihadists from Al-Qaeda's former Syrian branch, took control of the region, prompting an uptick in clashes.

Since late April, government forces have mounted a major bombardment of the south of the region with Russian support, prompting tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes.

State media has regularly reported attacks by the army on "terrorist" positions but there has been no announcement of any wider offensive.

Analysts have said the government's strategy may instead be to chip away at jihadist territory one piece at a time.

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.