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Syrian government takes strategic Idlib town in deadly weekend battle

Government forces seize al-Habeet as fighting claims more than 100 lives
Militants from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fire anti-aircraft gun mounted on pickup truck in Syria's southern Idlib province earlier this week (AFP)

Syrian government forces seized a town on the edge of Idlib on Sunday, a monitor said, in their first ground advance in the province since an escalation on the militant-dominated enclave more than three months ago.

The region of northwestern Syria, which is home to about three million civilians, has come under almost daily Syrian and Russian bombardment since late April, AFP said.

The most recent battle, which cost the lives of more than 100 fighters over the weekend, took place in an area straddling Idlib and Hama provinces, a war monitor said, and claimed dozens of lives on both sides.

"Regime forces seized the town of al-Habeet in Idlib's southern countryside at dawn," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

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Rebels have not yet commented on the fighting around al-Habeet but this week acknowledged losing ground nearby as the army ramped up its offensive after a brief ceasefire, Reuters said.

The Idlib area has escaped the control of President Bashar al-Assad's government since 2015 and is the last major bastion of opposition to his government and its allies.

The three-month offensive has made slower progress than any by Assad since Russia entered the war on his side in 2015, prompting a run of military victories that have brought most of Syria back under his rule.

Assad, who offered prayers for Islam's Eid al-Adha holiday in Damascus on Sunday morning, has sworn to take back every inch of Syria. However, other large areas are still beyond his control including the Kurdish-controlled northeast and a Turkish-held strip along the frontier.

Turkey, a supporter of some rebel groups, has posted military observation posts around the enclave's front lines, complicating Syrian army advances.

The monitoring group also reported two civilians killed, including a child, by government and Russian air strikes on Sunday in the south of Idlib province.

The capture of al-Habeet, one of several strategic targets for advancing pro-government forces, came after another night of deadly fighting, the Observatory said.

According to the Britain-based monitor's tally, 70 combatants were killed on Saturday, 32 of them pro-government forces.

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The remaining 38 were from the opposing ranks of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the militant outfit led by members of al-Qaeda's former Syria franchise and allied rebel fighters.

Rami Abdel Rahman said at least another 38 combatants, 14 of them government fighters, were killed in fighting on Sunday.

He described al-Habeet as "the first town in southern Idlib to be taken by the regime since the start of the escalation" in April.

The town is seen as a stepping stone towards Khan Sheikhun, one of the main towns in Idlib and the target of some of the eight-year-old conflict's deadliest air strikes.

Tens of thousands of people have been displaced in recent weeks and aid groups have warned that an all-out assault on Idlib could turn the current humanitarian emergency into a catastrophe of proportions previously unseen.

Syrian military air strikes have targeted hospitals, schools, water points, markets, bakeries and other civilian infrastructure, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Syria, Panos Mumtzis, has said.

The fighting is a violation of a deal that was reached by the battle's two main foreign brokers - Russia and Turkey - but was never fully implemented.

Russia is Damascus's main backer, while Turkey holds sway over some rebel and militant forces along its border. The deal's terms were never realistic but the accord sealed in the Russian resort of Sochi in September 2018 has so far staved off a full-fledged offensive.