Sat 08 February 2020:

The Syrian army took control of the strategic northwestern crossroads town of Saraqeb on Saturday in the latest gain of a weeks-long offensive against the country’s last major rebel bastion of Idlib.

“Army units now exercise full control over the town of Saraqeb,” state television reported, over footage of the town’s streets deserted after weeks of bombardment.

It said Syrian troops were combing the area for landmines and explosives left behind by the militants and allied rebels.

Saraqeb is the second key highway town to be recaptured by government forces in the past two weeks, after the rebels were pushed out of Maaret al-Numan last month.

Weeks of intensive air strikes and a bruising ground offensive have emptied entire towns in the Idlib region and sent hundreds of thousands fleeing.

The violence has displaced 586,000 people since December, according to the United Nations, and killed more than 300 civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Saraqeb is a strategic prize for the government it seeks to take back control of two major highways that meet in the town.

The M5 motorway connects the capital to second city Aleppo. Running up from the Jordanian border in the south, it is Syria’s longest highway.

The Observatory said on Friday that government forces were in control of the whole extent of the M5 in Idlib province.

Only a 30 kilometre section in neighbouring Aleppo now remains in rebel hands.

Saraqeb sits at the crossroads with the M4, the main east-west highway in Idlib which linking Aleppo with the Mediterranean port city of Latakia, a government bastion.

After a string of advances since the intervention of Russia on its side in 2015, the government now controls more than 70 per cent of Syrian territory.

The conflict has killed more than 380,000 people since it broke out in 2011.

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