Syr­ian troops gain ter­ri­tory in push to con­trol key high­way

Times-Herald (Vallejo) - - WEATHER - By Albert Aji and Bassem Mroue

DAMASCUS, SYRIA >> Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces cap­tured new ar­eas from in­sur­gents in their ef­forts to con­trol a key high­way in the north­west Satur­day, as Turkey sent more re­in­force­ments into the war-torn coun­try, state me­dia and op­po­si­tion ac­tivists said.

The week­s­long gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive has cre­ated a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis with about 600,000 peo­ple flee­ing their homes in Syria’s last rebel strong­hold since the be­gin­ning of De­cem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

Rebels con­trol much of Idlib prov­ince and parts of the neigh­bor­ing Aleppo re­gion that is home to some 3 mil­lion peo­ple — many of them dis­placed from other parts of Syria.

The Syr­ian of­fen­sive ap­pears aimed for now at se­cur­ing a strate­gic high­way in rebel-con­trolled ter­ri­tory, as op­posed to an all­out cam­paign to re­take the en­tire prov­ince, in­clud­ing the city of Idlib, the densely pop­u­lated pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal.

“Our aim is to clear the high­way and evict ter­ror­ists from it,” a Syr­ian com­man­der on the ground told state TV. He was re­fer­ring to the M5 high­way, which links the cap­i­tal Damascus with the north­ern city of Aleppo.

The Bri­tain-based Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, an op­po­si­tion war mon­i­tor, said gov­ern­ment forces still have 18 miles of the high­way to clear be­fore it comes un­der full con­trol of the army for the first time since 2012.

Syr­ian state TV re­ported Satur­day that gov­ern­ment forces cap­tured four vil­lages in Aleppo prov­ince near the high­way. It added that Syr­ian troops and dem­i­ning ex­perts have cleared ex­plo­sives and mines from the re­cently cap­tured town of Saraqeb that sits on an in­ter­sec­tion where the M5 meets with the M4 high­way, link­ing Syria’s coast with the coun­try’s east.

Syr­ian state me­dia and the Ob­ser­va­tory later re­ported that gov­ern­ment forces cap­tured the vil­lage of al-Eis and its strate­gic hill just east of the M5.

The new push came as Turkey, a main backer of the op­po­si­tion, sent more re­in­force­ments into Idlib, ac­cord­ing to the Ob­ser­va­tory and Idlib-based me­dia ac­tivist Ta­her al-Omar who is em­bed­ded with mil­i­tants.

GHAITH AL­SAYED — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Turk­ish mil­i­tary con­voy drives through the vil­lage of Bin­nish, in Idlib prov­ince, Syria, Satur­day.

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