Syrian regime forces entered a key town on Sunday amid heavy fighting with militants and their rebel allies, a war monitor said.
“Regime forces entered the town of Khan Sheikhun for the first since they lost control of it in 2014,” said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The latest fighting broke out overnight Saturday to Sunday and has already killed at least 45 militants and allied rebels as well as 17 members of the pro-regime forces, the Britain-based monitor said.
The town of Khan Sheikhun lies on a key highway coveted by the regime.
The road runs through Idlib, connecting government-held Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo, which was retaken by loyalists from rebels in December 2016.
Pro-regime forces are deployed around three kilometers from the road and have been advancing over the past few days in a bid to encircle Khan Sheikhun from the north and the west and seize the highway.
On Sunday they retook the village of Tel al-Nar and nearby farmland northwest of Khan Sheikhun “and were moving close to the highway,” Observatory head Rahman said.
But their advance from the east was being slowed down due to “a ferocious resistance” from militants and allied rebels.
Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controls most of Idlib province as well as parts of the neighboring provinces of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia.
A buffer zone deal brokered by Russia and Turkey last year was supposed to protect the Idlib region’s three million 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 860 civilians, according to the Observatory, which relies on sources inside Syria for its information.
On Sunday air strikes by the Syrian regime and its ally Russia killed two people, including a child, in the south of Idlib, the Observatory said.
More than 1,400 insurgents and over 1,200 pro-regime forces have been killed since April, according to the monitor.
The violence has displaced more than 400,000 people, the United Nations says.
Khan Sheikhun 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.
In response, US President Donald Trump ordered strikes on the regime’s key Shayrat airbase.
Now almost emptied of inhabitants, Khan Sheikhun sheltered almost 100,000 people before the start of the current military escalation, the majority displaced from Hama province.
“Many of these people have been displaced up to five times,” the UN’s regional spokesman for the Syria crisis, David Swanson, told AFP on Saturday.
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.