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11 civilians killed in NW syria, regime forces re-enter key town

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Beirut (AFP)

At least 11 civilians were killed in Russian air raids on northwestern Syria Monday, a monitor said, as Syrian regime forces re-entered a key town days after losing it to rebels.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said regime forces had wrested back full control of Saraqeb.

"Regime forces with Russian air cover were able to retake complete control of the town of Saraqeb on the Damascus-Aleppo highway," it said.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the army had re-entered the town after violent clashes with Turkey-backed rebels.

Rebel spokesman Naji Mustafa however said President Bashar al-Assad's forces had only taken part of the ghost town long emptied of its inhabitants.

"Assad's forces have launched an assault on Saraqeb and very violent clashes are ongoing inside," the spokesman for the National Liberation Front said.

Pro-government forces battling to seize the country's final rebel bastion had for the first time in years wrested control of the town on February 8, but jihadists and allied rebels then re-entered on Thursday.

The Observatory said clashes around Saraqeb were continuing on Monday evening, pitting regime and allied forces against Turkish-backed rebels, with elite fighters from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham jihadist group deployed nearby.

The Russian army said it had deployed units inside Saraqeb to "guarantee the safety and free movement of transport and civilians" on two key highways nearby.

The Observatory said Russian air strikes had killed nine civilians in the village of Al-Foua as well as two in the village of Adwan, both in Idlib province.

The fighting had killed 21 rebels and jihadists and 11 pro-regime fighters on Monday, it said.

- Strategic prize -

Since December, Russia-backed regime forces have led a deadly military offensive against the last major opposition stronghold of Idlib, where Turkey supports some rebel groups.

The UN says the assault on the jihadist-dominated region has caused almost a million people to flee their homes and shelters in the middle of winter, with more than 470 civilians killed according to the Observatory.

It said Damascus had deployed regime troops and allied fighters from Lebanon's Hezbollah group as reinforcements to the Saraqeb area late Sunday in preparation for an assault on the town.

Up to 23 rebels and jihadists were killed in Russian air strikes and clashes overnight, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Violence has escalated between regime fighters and Turkish forces in the Idlib region in the past weeks, killing dozens of troops on each side.

On Sunday, Turkey confirmed a full military operation in northwest Syria after a Thursday air strike blamed on Damascus killed 34 Turkish soldiers.

The Observatory says 93 regime soldiers have been killed in Turkish bombardment since Friday along with 10 Hezbollah fighters and four pro-Iranian fighters who were also supporting the regime.

Saraqeb is a strategic prize for the Syrian government as it seeks to revive a ravaged economy after nearly nine years of conflict.

The town lies at the intersection of the M5 and M4 highways, which connect the capital and regime coastal stronghold Latakia with second city Aleppo respectively.

On Sunday, SANA reported that the government shot down a Turkish drone near Saraqeb, publishing footage of an aircraft tumbling from the sky in flames.

The Syrian conflict has killed more than 380,000 people since it began in 2011.

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