Syria army says retakes key northwest town

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Damascus (AFP)

Syria government forces recaptured the strategic highway town of Maaret al-Numan from jihadist and allied rebels on Wednesday, the army said, returning for the first time in seven years.

"Our forces managed in the past few days to stamp out terrorism in many villages and towns," including Maaret al-Numan, an army spokesman said.

In 2011, Maaret al-Numan was one of the first towns in the northwestern province of Idlib to rise up against the Damascus government and the following year, it was captured by rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

It lies on a key highway connecting the capital to second city Aleppo and has long been in the sights of the government.

The army was bent on "hunting down all remaining armed terrorist groups, until all Syrian soil has been cleansed of terrorism", the army spokesman said in a televised statement.

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the government's advance into the south of Idlib province, seeking safety closer to the Turkish border further north.

Government forces, which now control around 70 percent of Syria, have repeatedly vowed to recapture the entire country, including Idlib province.

The civil war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than half the country's population since it erupted following the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.