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Syria regime army overruns key Idlib crossroads town of Saraqeb: state TV Open in fullscreen

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Syria regime army overruns key Idlib crossroads town of Saraqeb: state TV

Many Idlib residents have fled due to bombardment by approaching government forces [AFP/Getty]

Date of publication: 8 February, 2020

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Syrian state television is reporting that regime forces have taken full control over the key crossroads town of Saraqeb in Idlib.

The Syrian army took control of the strategic northwestern crossroads town of Saraqeb on Saturday in the latest gain of a weeks-long offensive against the country's last major rebel bastion of Idlib.

"Army units now exercise full control over the town of Saraqeb," state television reported, over footage of the town's streets deserted after weeks of bombardment. 

It said Syrian troops were combing the area for landmines and explosives left behind by the jihadists and allied rebels.

Saraqeb is the second key highway town to be recaptured by government forces in the past two weeks, after the rebels were pushed out of Maaret al Numan last month.

Weeks of intensive air strikes and a bruising ground offensive have emptied entire towns in the Idlib region and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday government forces had taken hold of a stretch of a key highway in the rebel held region of Idlib.

"Regime forces have seized the entire section of the Damascus-Aleppo highway that runs through Idlib province," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

State media made no mention of control over that part of the highway, but said that government forces had taken control of two villages along the road.

The M5 motorway has long been in the sights of the Damascus regime, as retaking it would allow traffic to flow from the capital to second city and former industrial hub Aleppo.

The Observatory said the latest advance to the northeast of the crossroads town of Saraqeb meant pro-Damascus fighters only had a 30 kilometre (18 mile) stretch remaining to seize in Aleppo province to exert full control over the highway.

Running up from the Jordanian border in the south of the country, the M5 is Syria's longest highway.

It cuts through fertile fields, industrial zones and four major cities

Erdogan's warning

Meanwhile, Turkey threatened on Saturday to respond if any of its military outposts in Syria's last opposition bastion of Idlib came under attack, a day after officials said three of them had been encircled by forces loyal to Damascus. 

Under an agreement with Russia, key ally of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Turkey has set up 12 observation posts in Idlib to avert an offensive by Syrian government forces.

Turkey this week sent nearly 150 vehicles with commandos and ammunition to beef up these positions, with officials on Friday reporting that three of them had been surrounded by regime troops. 

"Our observation posts in Idlib continue their duties and are capable of protecting themselves with the weapons and equipment they possess," the Turkish defence ministry said on Twitter. 

"In the event of a new attack, proper response will be given in the strongest manner, based on the right of self-defence."

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given Syria an ultimatum to drive back its troops from its military observation posts by the end of February after eight Turks were killed in regime fire on Monday.

The deadly clashes have angered Turkey, which urged Moscow to press the regime for an end to its offensive. 

Reports from The New Arab's Arabic service said Turkey was building a new observation post to the west of Sarmin, in eastern Idlib province.

They added that a convoy including six tanks, five armoured personnel carriers and 23 armoured vehicles left Taftanaz military airport in Idlib and headed east towards the town of Binnish.

Russian officials will arrive in Ankara for talks on Saturday, Turkey's foreign minister said on Friday.

"A delegation from Russia will arrive in Turkey. We will hold talks. Our goal is to stop the (Syrian) regime's aggression and move the political process forward," Mevlut Cavusoglu said.

Turkish diplomatic sources told The New Arab's Arabic service that Ankara would reinstate its demands for Syrian regime forces to withdraw out of the de-escalation zone around Idlib, or launch a large scale escalation.

Over 580,000 people have been displaced in the past two months by the regime's assault and at least 300 more have been killed. Turkey fears an influx of refugees if the regime advances further into Idlib province, which is home to more than 3.5 million people.

Read also: As Syria regime inches closer, Idlib city prepares for mass exodus of civilians

Most of those displaced by the recent fighting have fled to areas close to the Turkish border, which is closed to refugees.

A recent poll found that 90% of people displaced from their homes in Idlib would be unwilling to return to Assad regime held territory. The regime has previously detained and killed civilians in areas it has captured from rebels.

The Syrian conflict began in 2011 following the brutal suppression of peaceful pro-democracy protests by the Assad regime.

Over half a million people have been killed and millions more displaced throughout the course of the conflict, mostly as a result of regime bombardment of civilian areas.

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