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Syria regime on verge of recapturing Idlib highway town

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Saraqeb (Syria) (AFP)

Syrian regime forces were poised Friday to retake the rebel-held town of Saraqeb in the country's northwest where battles this week killed more than 400 combatants, a monitor said.

Russian-backed regime forces have advanced with a double-pronged push in the Idlib region, home to some three million people, half of whom have been displaced from other parts of the country.

Slowly chipping away from the south and northeast, they have shrunk Syria's last major opposition bastion to just over half of Idlib province and slivers of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia.

On Friday, regime forces battled jihadists and rebels on the edges of Saraqeb, which is nearly deserted following two weeks of heightened bombardment, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The clashes were within two kilometres (one mile) of the town, which lies on the M5 highway connecting the Syrian capital Damascus to Aleppo, said the Britain-based Observatory.

Saraqeb also sits at the junction of the M4, which runs west-to-east across Idlib, linking the coastal regime stronghold of Latakia to Aleppo, once Syria's industrial hub.

Both highways are coveted by the regime as it seeks to revive a moribund economy after nine years of war.

In conjunction with the ground push, air strikes hit Saraqeb on Friday, with one falling on a centre for civil defence rescue workers, said an AFP correspondent in the area.

Parts of the building where the centre is located were reduced to rubble and at least six rescue workers were wounded, all of whom are now in stable condition, said Mustafa Abu Hamdou, who heads civil defence teams in Idlib.

"The centre is now out of service," Hamdou added.

It was not immediately clear whether regime or Russian warplanes where behind the strike.

- Double-pronged push -

If the government takes Saraqeb, it would be the second strategic town in Idlib province to be recaptured by Damascus forces this week.

On Wednesday rebels and jihadists pulled out of Maarat al-Numan, which also lies on the M5.

About 50 kilometres of the M5 remain outside regime control, mostly in the western countryside of Aleppo province, which neighbours Idlib, according to the Observatory.

Rebels and jihadists have been locked in fierce battles with regime forces in western Aleppo since mid-January, in the largest escalation there since 2016.

The fighting in Idlib and in western Aleppo over the past week has killed 205 pro-government fighters and 220 anti-regime combatants, the Observatory said.

A Syrian military commander who asked not to be named said the push in the two provinces aims to secure key highways and corner rebels and jihadists in a shrinking pocket in central Idlib.

Regime forces near Saraqeb are pushing north, while those in Aleppo are moving towards them from the south, he told AFP during a government-organised tour of Maarat al-Numan on Thursday.

- Unbearable situation -

The Idlib region is dominated by jihadists from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance, led by a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.

Damascus, which controls more than 70 percent of Syria, has repeatedly vowed to reclaim the entire country, including Idlib.

The violence in the northwest has displaced more than 388,000 people, according to the United Nations, and killed more than 260 civilians, according to Observatory.

Aid groups have warned the latest violence is compounding one of the war's worst humanitarian disasters.

"The situation here in the northwest of Syria is unbearable for civilians," said Lorenzo Redalie of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

"They are mentally and physically strained."

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