Syria army says retakes key northwest town

Beirut (AFP) - Syrian government forces recaptured a strategic northwestern highway town from jihadist and allied rebels Wednesday, in the latest blow to the country's last major opposition bastion.

Once a hotspot for anti-government protests, Maaret al-Numan has been turned into a ghost town by deadly regime and Russian air strikes that killed another 11 civilians in the embattled province of Idlib on Wednesday, according to a war monitor.

The town lies on the key M5 highway connecting the capital Damascus to second city Aleppo, long 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.

Russian and regime air strikes on Wednesday killed 10 civilians further north in the village of Kafr Lata and another near the town of Saraqeb, also on the M5, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

It added that regime forces advancing on Saraqeb, 27 kilometres (17 miles) north of Maaret al-Numan, had seized an additional five villages.

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 region, which hosts some three million people, is dominated by jihadists from Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, but allied rebels are also present.

The government has slowly chipped away at the south of the bastion, despite several deals between government ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey intended to avert a broad military offensive.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Moscow on Wednesday of "not honouring these agreements".

It was a rare critical remark from Erdogan, who has largely sought to keep good relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin since a 2016 rapprochement.

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