Rebels 'regroup' as Syrian troops advance on Khan Sheikhoun
The main rebel group in Syria's Idlib province said on Tuesday it had partially pulled out its fighters from a key opposition-held town as regime forces advanced in the area.
UK-based war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) initially reported that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) had withdrawn from its last position in northern Hama province and from the key town of Khan Sheikhoun.
Under rebel control since 2014, Khan Sheikhoun is located near a key highway that links the regime-held capital Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo.
Pro-regime forces have been engaged in a fierce battle with the extremist insurgent group and former affiliates of Al-Qaeda, HTS, over the past week in the hopes of recapturing the town and road, leaving dozens of fighters from both sides dead.
Civilians have also been subjected to devastating aerial bombardment from the regime's Russian ally.
Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad entered Khan Sheikhoun on Monday evening amid intense clashes, seizing control of the northwest of the town.
The pro-regime forces also took control of the al-Nimr checkpoint on the Damascus-Aleppo highway, SOHR said.
The regime advance was also confirmed by pro-regime news outlets, including Russian news agency TASS.
But HTS, the former Syrian affiliate of al-Qaida, said its fighters had not completely withdrawn from Khan Sheikhoun.
Instead the militants have regrouped in the southern part of the town, HTS said
“After ferocious bombardment by the criminal enemy forces... the mujahideen last night repositioned in the south of Khan Sheikhoun town with the southern part still under the control of the mujahideen,” the group said in a statement published on its Telegram channel according to .
Khan Sheikhoun was hit by a chemical attack that killed more than 80 people in April 2017, attributed to the Syrian regime by the UN and international experts.
Syrian regime and Russian forces launched an offensive to recapture large swathes of territory in the northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces in late April.
Airstrikes have killed 949 civilians, including 237 children, according to SOHR, and the fighting has left more than a thousand fighters on each side dead.
Heavy regime and Russian bombing has emptied large parts of southern Idlib and Hama, with The White Helmets saying that 124,000 civilians have fled their homes between 11 and 15 August.
More than 850,000 people have been uprooted since the regime began bombing Idlib in February.
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