Syria regime forces battle jihadists for key town, highway

Beirut (AFP) –


Syrian pro-regime forces fought pitched battles Sunday with insurgents as they inched their way closer to a jihadist-run town in the northwestern province of Idlib, a war monitor said.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said "fierce clashes" between loyalist forces, jihadists and allied rebels were taking place one kilometre (0.6 miles) west of Khan Sheikhun.

The latest fighting broke out overnight Saturday to Sunday and has already killed two jihadists and allied rebels and 11 members of the pro-regime forces, the war monitor said.

The town of Khan Sheikhun lies on a key highway coveted by the regime.

The road runs through Idlib, connecting government-held Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which was retaken by loyalists from rebels in December 2016.

Pro-regime forces are deployed around three kilometres (1.8 miles) from the road and have been advancing over the past few days in a bid to encircle Khan Sheikhun from the north and the west and seize the highway.

On Sunday they retook they village of Tel al-Nar and nearby farmland northwest of Khan Sheikhun "and were moving close to the highway," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.

But their advance from the east was being slowed down due to "a ferocious resistance" from jihadists and allied rebels.

Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controls most of Idlib province as well as parts of the neighbouring provinces of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia.

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 air strikes and shelling since late April have killed more than 860 civilians, according to the Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.

More than 1,370 insurgents and over 1,200 pro-regime forces have also been killed since then, according to the monitor.

The violence has displaced more than 400,000 people, the United Nations says.

"Many of these people have been displaced up to five times," the UN's regional spokesman for the Syria crisis, David Swanson, told AFP on Saturday.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since starting with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.