DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syrian troops are in full control of a key rebel-held town in the country’s northwest after days of intense fighting and airstrikes that displaced tens of thousands of people, the Syrian army said Wednesday.
The capture of the town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province marks another victory for President Bashar Assad’s forces, which now control most of Syria after a nearly nine-year conflict that left more than 400,000 people dead and displaced half of Syria’s population.
Syrian government forces have been on the offensive for more than a month in northwestern Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the country. But in recent days, the government captured more than a dozen villages in the area as the insurgents’ defenses began to crumble. Al-Qaida linked rebels control much of Idlib province and small parts of the adjacent area in Aleppo.
“Our armed forces continued operations in southern parts of Idlib with the aim of putting an end to crimes committed by terrorist groups,” said army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ali Mayhoub. He listed more than a dozen villages and towns captured, including Maaret al-Numan.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said insurgents withdrew from the town late on Tuesday. Syrian troops had left a road west of the town opened apparently to give a chance for insurgents to pull out and to avoid street battles inside the town.
The push into Maaret al-Numan came as Syrian forces were also advancing against insurgents west of the city of Aleppo, according to state media and opposition activists.
Maaret al-Numan, which had been in rebel hands since 2012, sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, once Syria’s main commercial hub. With the town’s fall, government forces are now closer to retaking the critical north-south highway.
The government offensive in Idlib has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, many of them to areas close to the border with Turkey. The province is home to 3 million civilians, and the U.N. has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border.
In August, Syrian troops captured another town along the highway, Khan Sheikhoun. Now that Syrian troops are in control of Maaret al-Numan, their next target is likely to be Saraqeb, which would become the last major town on the M5 highway that remains outside government control.