Syrian government forces seize more villages in northwest

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Beirut (AFP)

Syrian regime forces on Sunday seized a dozen villages and small towns as they pressed an offensive in the country's northwest against the last major rebel bastion, a war monitor said.

Backed by Russian air strikes, government forces have kept up the assault on the Idlib region and areas of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces since December.

On Sunday, they captured 13 villages and small towns north and northwest of the city of Aleppo, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Syria's state run agency SANA said army units were pushing on with their advance around Aleppo.

Regime forces have for weeks been making gains in northwestern Syria and chipping away at territory held by jihadists and allied rebels, focusing their latest operations on the west of Aleppo province.

The drive aims to bolster security in Syria's second city Aleppo, which President Bashar al-Assad's government retook completely from insurgents at the end of 2016 but which is still targeted by rocket fire.

Last week, regime forces seized control of the strategic M5 highway which connects the capital Damascus to Aleppo, the country's former economic hub, and is economically vital for the government.

According to the Observatory, Assad's forces are trying to consolidate a "security belt" around the M5 and on Friday they seized a key base lost to the rebels in 2012 just west of Aleppo.

The Russian-backed offensive has triggered the largest wave of displacement in Syria's nine-year conflict, with 800,000 people fleeing since December, according to the United Nations.

More than 380,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict broke out nearly nine years ago with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.