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Syria regime forces set to enter key rebel hub

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Near Maaret al-Numan (Syria) (AFP)

Syrian regime forces were poised Monday to soon enter Maaret al-Numan, a town of symbolic and strategic importance that is deserted after months of bombardment, located in the last opposition bastion.

Maaret al-Numan is a strategic prize lying on the M5 highway linking Damascus to Syria's second city Aleppo, a main artery coveted by the regime.

It is also the second biggest city in the beleaguered northwestern province of Idlib, the last stronghold of anti-regime forces and home to some three million people -- half of them displaced by violence in other areas.

Damascus loyalists have since Friday seized around 14 towns and villages around the city, reaching its eastern outskirts, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday.

They have also cut the M5 highway leading north from Maaret al Numan to Idlib city, according to the Observatory and the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.

Retaking full control of the M5 highway is essential to the government's efforts to rekindle a moribund economy.

"Maaret al-Numan is nearly besieged," said Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman, explaining that regime forces were now stationed south, east and north of the city.

Abdul Rahman said Damascus loyalists were now pushing from the west and northwest in a bid to tighten the noose around the opposition holdout.

An AFP correspondent in the region said regime forces were also trying to reach the city's southwestern edges to prevent rebels and jihadists from falling back.

Idlib and nearby areas of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, led by members of the country's former Al-Qaeda franchise.

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

- Displacement -

An AFP correspondent said Maaret al-Numan had become a ghost town, but the Observatory maintained that some civilians had remained in the area despite the escalation.

Fearing further regime advances, residents of the town of Saraqib, located more than 30 kilometres (about 20 miles) north of Maarat al-Numan, have started to flee, according to the Observatory and an AFP correspondent.

Pick-up trucks carrying entire families packed a road leading from Saraqib further north, towards the border with Turkey, said an AFP correspondent.

The vehicles were crammed with mattresses, clothes and household appliances, many of them belonging to families who had previously fled Maaret al-Numan.

Sitting in the front seat of a pick-up truck, one woman used a tissue paper to dab tears off her face, her watery blue eyes glistening from behind the car window.

Maaret al-Numan was an early hub of support for what started as demonstrations against Assad's rule in 2011.

Assad's forces, which are also battling HTS jihadists 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 neighbouring western Aleppo between January 15 and 19.

A ceasefire announced by Moscow earlier this month was supposed to protect Idlib from further attacks, but it 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 percent of the country.

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