Syria regime forces inch closer to key jihadist-held town: monitor

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AFP correspondents have reported seeing dozens of families flee fighting over the past few days

AFP correspondents have reported seeing dozens of families flee fighting over the past few days (AFP Photo/Muhammad HAJ KADOUR)

Beirut (AFP) - Syrian regime forces captured a string of insurgent-held villages in northwest Syria on Thursday, inching closer to a key jihadist-run town in the Idlib region, a war monitor said.

Over the past week, pro-regime fighters have advanced on the southern edges of Idlib province, controlled by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

On Thursday, regime loyalists stood just three kilometres (1.8 miles) away from the key town of Khan Sheikhun, after capturing five villages to the northwest overnight, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The town lies on a key highway coveted by the regime.

The road in question runs through Idlib, connecting government-held Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which was retaken by loyalists from rebels in December 2016.

"The aim of the advance is to surround Khan Sheikhun and reach the highway," Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.

Fighting in southern Idlib on Thursday killed 20 regime combatants and 24 jihadists and allied rebels, according to the Britain-based monitor.

Regime air strikes also killed one civilian in southern Idlib, it said.

A day earlier jihadists downed a regime plane near Khan Sheikhun, and took the pilot prisoner.

A video released by HTS on Thursday purported to show the captured pilot, who identified himself as Lieutenant Colonel Mohammad Ahmad Sleiman of the Syrian air force.

- 'Horror' -

HTS has since January controlled most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighbouring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

On Wednesday, air strikes on the south of the bastion killed 9 civilians including a paramedic, an ambulance driver, and a rescue worker.

A UN official on Thursday decried the violence, referencing the deaths of the previous day.

"Wednesday's attack highlights again the horror of what's going on in Idlib and northern Hama, where three million civilians remain trapped and where humanitarians, medical staff and rescue workers continue to pay with their lives in their efforts to help others," UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis Mark Cutts said.

A buffer zone deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last year was supposed to protect the Idlib region's inhabitants from an all-out regime offensive, but it was never fully implemented.

Regime and Russian air strikes and shelling since late April have killed more than 820 civilians, according to the Observatory.

It said more than 1,300 jihadist and rebel fighters -- as well as 1,150 regime forces -- have died in the same period.

The violence has displaced 400,000 people, according to the United Nations.

AFP correspondents have reported seeing dozens of families flee fighting over the past few days, heading north in trucks stacked high with belongings.

Syria's conflict has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions at home and abroad since starting with the brutal repression of anti-regime protests in 2011.