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Syrian troops push towards Turkish observation post

The province of Idlib has been at the centre of an offensive by Syrian forces over recent weeks, with more than a dozen villages captured.

A baby is lifted onto a truck carrying civilians fleeing Maaret al-Numan in Syria, ahead of a government offensive (Ghaith al-Sayed/AP)
A baby is lifted onto a truck carrying civilians fleeing Maaret al-Numan in Syria, ahead of a government offensive (Ghaith al-Sayed/AP)

By Bassem Mroue, Associated Press

Syrian government forces were pushing deeper in their offensive on the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country’s northwest on Sunday, opposition activists said.

Forces were getting close to a Turkish observation post in the area, with shelling and airstrikes on rebel-held villages in Idlib reported by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence, also known as White Helmets.

At least one civilian has been killed, according to reports.

The province of Idlib has been at the centre of a push by Syrian forces in recent weeks under cover of airstrikes, with more than a dozen villages captured.

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People carry supplies to a truck as they flee the town of Maaret al-Numan (Ghaith al-Sayed/AP)

The offensive has already forced tens of thousands of civilians to abandon their homes and flee, including thousands who have crossed into neighbouring Turkey seeking safety.

The attacks resumed after a ceasefire, which had been in force since the end of August, recently collapsed.

Turkey has backed Syrian rebels in the neighbouring country’s civil war, now in its ninth year.

Saraqeb and Maaret al-Numan are two major rebel-held towns on the highway linking the capital, Damascus, with Syria’s largest city Aleppo.

The two locations have been emptied of civilians since becoming the target of the offensive, which aims to reopen the highway, which has been closed since 2012.

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A truck carries civilians fleeing Maaret al-Numan (Ghaith al-Sayed/AP)

Syrian troops, advancing from the east toward Maaret al-Numan, approached the Turkish observation post outside the village of Surman from three sides, according to the Observatory.

The Step news agency said government troops were about 4km (2.5 miles) from the Turkish post.

Syrian state media made no mention of the post but said government forces had captured several villages near Maaret al-Numan.

Four months ago, Syrian troops captured all territory around another Turkish post in the village of Morek, also in Idlib province, leaving the Turkish monitors only a nearby road to use.

No friction has since been reported between Syrian and Turkish troops in Morek.

Relations between Turkey and Syria have deteriorated sharply since Syria’s crisis began in 2011, with Damascus accusing Ankara of undermining its security by allowing thousands of foreign fighters to cross the border to battle Syrian government forces.

Turkey is a strong backer of rebels fighting President Bashar Assad’s forces and has 12 observation posts in northwestern Syria as part of an agreement reached last year with Russia, a main backer of Assad’s government.

Idlib, which is dominated by al Qaida-linked militants, is home to three million civilians and the UN has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border.

PA

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