Government forces captured the town of Qalaat al-Madiq in northwest Syria, some residents and a war monitor said on Thursday, as they push into the biggest remaining rebel territory.
Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air power, launched ground operations this week against the southern flank of the rebel zone consisting of Idlib and parts of adjacent provinces.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The area is nominally protected by a Russian-Turkish deal agreed last year to avert a major new battle that could lead to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the area.
Qalaat al-Madiq was the rebel town closest to the Russian Hmeimim airbase at Latakia, which fighters have previously targeted with rocket fire.
It was also the entry point to rebel territory for many fighters and civilians who were evacuated from territory captured by the army under surrender deals negotiated with President Bashar al-Assad‘s government over recent years.
Local residents said Syrian government forces captured Qalaat al-Madiq and two nearby villages – Tal Hawash and Al-Karkat.
Idlib-based activist Alaa Moadamani confirmed the village’s capture.
The head of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, warned that an all-out conflict in the last major rebel stronghold in Idlib province “could generate an unimaginable human rights and humanitarian catastrophe.”
Pinheiro told a news conference on Thursday that the current aerial and ground offensive by the Syrian government and its allies is “a serious escalation”.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor group said rebels had withdrawn after being nearly encircled by the army.
Some 13 health facilities have been hit in the bombing, the US-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, which funds some hospitals in the area, said on Wednesday.
Thursday’s push came a day after Syrian troops took the nearby village of Kfar Nabudah, which activists called Idlib’s first line of defence.
Nearly 150,000 Syrians are fleeing fierce bombardment in north-west Syria as Russian-backed government-led attacks intensify. pic.twitter.com/DIOupnqqxt
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) May 9, 2019
‘Living between trees’
The latest offensive, which began April 30, has raised fears of a wider government push on Idlib, which is home to about three million people, many of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria.
The government appears to be trying to secure access to a major highway that cuts through the rebel-held enclave. The highway was to reopen before the end of 2018, following the ceasefire agreement between Russia and Turkey, but it remains closed.
Rasheed al-Ahmed, a pharmacist from Kfar Nabudah, said all the village’s residents fled to the north, settling in camps along the border with Turkey. He said the government troops, aided by Russian forces, entered the village in droves with aircraft overhead. Neighbouring villages were also emptied, he said, amid the fast-moving offensive.
“People are living between trees and in farms,” Ahmed said, adding he secured his family a place in Atmeh near the border. “It is a deplorable situation.”
The activist-operated Thiqa news agency filmed a group of civilians living between olive trees where they spread out rugs to sleep and sit on. The civilians hung their few belongings in plastic bags on the tree branches.
Moadamani, the Idlib-based activist, said “people are terrified as more flee their homes”, adding many who fled were sleeping in their cars.