Syrian army enters rebel-held northwestern Saraqeb town in latest advance: Report

Reuters Beirut, Lebanon Feb 07, 2020, 01.38 PM(IST)

People walk past a damaged building in the city of Idlib, Syria. Photograph:( Reuters )

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President Bashar al-Assad's swift military advance through Idlib province has caused an exodus of civilians towards Turkey's border in the past two weeks.

Russian-led Syrian government forces on Thursday entered Saraqeb town in northwestern Idlib province in the latest push to capture the last rebel stronghold, state media said.

President Bashar al-Assad's swift military advance through Idlib province has caused an exodus of civilians towards Turkey's border in the past two weeks, risking a military confrontation with Turkey, whose leader has threatened to drive back the Syrian forces.

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Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday that Ankara expected Russia to immediately stop the government attacks, which killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday and prompted Turkish forces to strike back.

"We conveyed our determination to our Russian counterparts," he said, adding that Ankara was determined to stem the "humanitarian drama" in Idlib which Turkey says has displaced nearly 1 million people.

Syrian forces, who are backed by Russian airstrikes, had on Wednesday encircled and entered Saraqeb, 15 km east of Idlib city, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had said in a report corroborated by witnesses.

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The town lies at the junction of two main roads that Assad seeks to fully control to regain Idlib province, the last rebel bastion in the nearly nine-year-long civil war.

Rebel fighters "managed to push back government forces from most of Saraqeb in an attack from the northern part of the town that coincided with Turkish shelling against advancing government forces," the Observatory said.

Witnesses said government forces came under shelling from Turkish observation posts in the area.

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The fighting, taking place despite a January 12 ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia, disrupted fragile cooperation between the two countries that support opposing sides in the conflict.

The Kremlin said on Thursday that militants in Turkey's "zone of responsibility" in Idlib province were continuing to attack Syrian government forces and Russian military infrastructure.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there were no plans currently for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to meet to reduce tensions in Idlib but that such a meeting could be quickly organised if needed.

Russia also said some of its troops had been killed in the militant attacks, its first confirmation of casualties in the current round of fighting.

The battle for Idlib is a crucial stage of a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians, made millions of refugees in their own country or overseas, and fractured the wider Middle East since it broke out amid the Arab Spring in 2011.

Russian and Iranian support has helped Assad win back nearly all the territory lost to rebels. The threat of direct confrontation between arch-enemies Israel and Iran has also long simmered in Syria, where the Iranian military has built a presence early in the civil war.

Early on Thursday, Syrian air defences intercepted Israeli missiles over Damascus that were fired at military targets in southern Syria including near the capital, the Syrian defence ministry said.