Russian Backed Syrian troops retake symbolic town of Kafranbel, 18 others: monitor

Syrian regime forces recaptured Kafranbel in Idlib province on Tuesday, a war monitor said, a symbolic victory in a town that was among the first to rebel against Damascus.

Supported by Russian air strikes, pro-regime forces advancing on the last major rebel-held bastion in northwest Syria captured Kafranbel and 18 nearby towns and villages over the past 48 hours, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Earlier on Thursday, the Observatory said regime air strikes and artillery fire had killed 19 civilians in Idlib, in towns north of Kafranbel.

From the first days of the peaceful uprising against the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011, Kafranbel gained worldwide renown as a bastion of protest.

In 2012, it was rocked by fighting between regime fighters and defectors from Assad's army, soon slipping out of the government's control.

A town of some 20,000 people, it became known for the often humorous signs in English and Arabic that its residents held up at weekly demonstrations.

"Down with the regime -- and the opposition," a sign at one of the town's protests read in 2011.

Activists from Kafranbel became famous for speaking out against Damascus as well as criticising jihadists and the radicalisation of the uprising against Assad.

Prominent activists Raed Fares and Hamod Jnaid were killed by unknown gunmen in the town in November 2018.

In recent weeks, Damascus has pressed a major offensive against the remaining territory still held by jihadists and Turkish-backed rebels, which has shrunk to an area roughly the size of Majorca.

The area hosts more than three million people -- half of them already displaced by violence elsewhere.

Russia earlier this month blocked a UN bid to end the Damascus regime's assault on Idlib.

Moscow's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday that a truce at this stage would be tantamount to "capitulating before terrorists".

The force that has controlled the Idlib region in recent years is dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group led by ex-members of Al-Qaeda's former Syria franchise.

Many of the crowded territory's residents are civilians who were forced from their homes in earlier phases of a war that has displaced more than 11 million people since 2011.

According to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, some 170,000 people are sleeping rough in Idlib province, which saw snow and sub-zero temperatures earlier this month.

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