Syria government forces recaptured a strategic highway town in the northwest from jihadist and allied rebels Wednesday, in the latest blow to the country’s last major opposition bastion.
Maaret al-Numan, a former anti-government protest hotspot turned ghost town after months of bombardment, lies on a key highway connecting the capital to second city Aleppo.
The M5 highway has long been in the sights of the government, as it seeks to revive a moribund economy ravaged by almost nine years of war.
“Our forces managed in the past few days to stamp out terrorism in many villages and towns,” including Maaret al-Numan, an army spokesman said.
In 2011, Maaret al-Numan was one of the first towns in the northwestern province of Idlib to rise up against the Damascus government.
The following year, it was captured by rebels fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.
It is the latest town to fall in a Russian-backed offensive on the Idlib region this year.
The area of some three million people is dominated by jihadists from Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, but allied opposition fighters are also present.
Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the government’s advance into the south of Idlib in recent months, seeking safety closer to the Turkish border further north.
The violence has displaced around 358,000 people in Syria’s northwest since December, the United Nations says.
In areas north of Maaret al-Numan, bombardment by governmment ally Russia has prompted a fresh wave of displacement in recent days, with hundreds of vehicles cramming a key exit route, the Observatory and AFP correspondents reported.
– ‘Cleanse all Syria soil’ –
Aid groups have warned the latest volence is only compounding one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the nine-year civil war.
Government forces, which now control around 70 percent of Syria, have repeatedly vowed to retake the entire country, including Idlib.
After Maaret al-Numan’s recapture, the Syrian army was bent on “hunting down all remaining armed terrorist groups, until all Syrian soil has been cleansed of terrorism”, the spokesman said.
On Wednesday, army forces swept the town for booby traps and unexploded ordnance after all rebels were either killed or withdrew, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The town was once a defiant hotspot for anti-Assad protests, drawing in crowds from surrounding villages.
It is also home to a museum of Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics, which volunteers sought to protect with sandbags through years of war.
What remains of rebel-held territory includes more than half of Idlib province, as well as slivers of adjacent Aleppo and Latakia.
Fighting between government forces and the rebels was also continuing in the south of Aleppo province on Wednesday, the Britain-based Observatory said.
To the north of Maaret al-Numan, the front line had been pushed back to within 10 kilometres (six miles) of the town of Saraqeb, the next stop on the M5 highway, its director Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The civil war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than half the country’s population since it erupted following the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.