Intense fighting in northwest Syria as army tries to advance

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian army has made a small advance into the rebels' last major stronghold in Syria, a pro-government newspaper and a war monitor reported on Tuesday, after massive bombardments that began late last month.

Al-Watan daily said the army had captured the villages of al-Janabara and Tel Othman, where rebels said on Monday they had repulsed government assaults. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops had seized Tel Othman.

Northwest Syria is the only significant territory still in rebel hands. The area being targeted in the latest bombardment was the subject of a Russian-Turkish agreement last September to hold off a government offensive.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organisation that monitors the war, said 69 civilians had been killed by bombardments since April 30. At least 41 insurgents had been killed by air strikes and fighting, it said.

The dominant rebel force in the northwest said on Monday it would meet any government attempt to advance with "iron and fire". The group, Tahrir al-Sham, includes al Qaeda's former affiliate the Nusra Front.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has recaptured most of the country from rebels since Russia joined the war on his side in 2015, deploying its air power in support of the army and allied Iran-backed militias.

The United Nations has said the northwestern Idlib region is home to 3 million people, half of whom have already fled their homes at least once during the conflict, and that a big battle there risks causing a new humanitarian disaster.

Bombardments since April 28 have displaced more than 158,000 people, the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM) said on Monday.

A media spokesman for the Civil Defence organisation, which conducts rescue operations in opposition-held areas of Syria, said the bombardment was non-stop.

"There is a first wave of barrel bombs dropped by helicopters. A few minutes later a jet will drop another wave of weapons hitting first responders. Then it's followed by a wave of artillery," the spokesman said.

The Observatory said nine civilians were killed after midnight by bombardment and reported helicopters dropping barrel bombs - improvised munitions filled with explosives.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres is following the hostilities with great concern, his spokesman, and urged parties to recommit to the ceasefire that was agreed last year.

Part of the rebels' northwestern enclave is held by Turkish-backed groups aided by the Turkish army. The rest, including the southern flank where fighting has focused this week, is dominated by Tahrir al-Sham group.

(The refiled story adds missing word "concern" in penultimate paragraph.)

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)