Opposition fighters have withdrawn from a key town in Syria’s Idlib province amid a government offensive to retake the country’s last major rebel stronghold, local activists have said.
Suleiman Abdulqader, a local activist in southern Idlib, said the rebels withdrew from Khan Sheikhoun early on Tuesday after the town was “completely surrounded by government forces”.
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“They [rebels] moved towards the north and east for now in an attempt to prevent troops from advancing to new points,” he said.
The withdrawal from Khan Sheikhoun, one of the northwestern province’s largest towns that has been in rebel hands since 2014, comes after days of fierce fighting between rebel factions and Russia-backed forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Local activist Ahmed Husseinat said the fighters who withdrew were from the Jaish al-Izza rebel faction and from the Turkish-backed al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front, NLF) – a loose coalition of armed groups considered part of the moderate opposition.
But a statement on Tuesday from the main group in the area, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate, described the withdrawal as “a redeployment”. HTS said its fighters withdrew to the southern part of Khan Sheikhoun from where they would continue to defend their territory.
Reports from activists also note that fighters have withdrawn from a string of towns and villages in northern Hama, a city bordering Idlib from the south.
Turkish convoy ‘stuck’
On Monday, air raids struck a Turkish military convoy making its way through Idlib, the Turkish defence ministry said, adding that the convoy was heading to one of Ankara’s observation posts in Morek in northwest Syria.
The convoy had been sent to keep open supply routes, ensure the safety of the observation post and protect civilians in the region, the ministry said.
At least three civilians were killed in the strikes, it added.
The Syrian government said the convoy had entered the country carrying ammunition to help opposition fighters who had lost ground amid the Russian-backed military push that began in late April.
Ankara backs some of the rebels in northwest Syria and has deployed forces in the Idlib region under deals with Moscow.
Activists also said the Turkish convoy remained on the Damascus-Aleppo highway near the town of Maarat Al Numan, where it was earlier targeted by fighter jets. It was not immediately clear whether the Syrian government or Russian fighter jets had struck near the convoy.
“The Turkish convoy is still stuck north of Khan Sheikhoun,” Abdulqader said. “It has not been able to move since yesterday’s attacks,” Ahmed Sheikho, a local activist and member of the Syrian Civil Defence, a volunteer rescue group operating in rebel-held parts of Syria, told Al Jazeera.
Later on Tuesday, Turkey said it would not be moving its observation post in Morek, warning Syria not to “play with fire”.
“Right now we don’t have an intention such as moving this elsewhere,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “It will carry on with its mission.”
The post is one of 12 observation points set up across opposition-held territories in Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama provinces that were established after a “de-escalation” agreement was reached between Turkey, Russia and Iran in July 2017.
“We will do whatever is necessary for the security of our own soldiers and observation posts,” Cavusoglu added.
Khan Sheikhoun lies on a key highway that connects Damascus with the northern city of Aleppo. The Syrian government has been battling to take control of the strategic M5 highway, a move that would allow it to connect cities under its control and boost trade.
After a short-lived ceasefire, the area has seen intense bombardment in recent days, as the Syrian army gained ground against the weakened rebels.
Idlib is home to about three million people, half of whom were transferred there en masse from other areas that were taken by pro-government forces.
Many of those who resided in and around Khan Sheikhoun have amassed near the Turkey-Syria border, fleeing bombardment.
According to the United Nations, more than 500 civilians have been killed, while hundreds more have been wounded since the start of the offensive.
Meanwhile, some 400,000 people have been forced to leave their homes.
“There are virtually no civilians in the area,” Sheikho said. “Many want to return to their homes, but they’re forced to wait all the way near the border for now.”