BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters on Thursday retook a key northwestern town in Syria that was recently captured by government forces, and cut the highway linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo.
The development comes days after the government reopened the road for traffic for the first time since 2012. The retaking of Sarqeb marked a setback for Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces who have scored major gains in a weekslong Russian-backed campaign in the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province.
The government offensive has displaced almost 950,000 people and left hundreds of civilians dead.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitoring group, said the opposition fighters seized the town after intense bombardment by Turkish troops. Turkey and Russia support opposite sides in Syria's brutal civil war, with Ankara backing the opposition groups and Moscow backing Assad.
From inside Saraqeb, activist Taher al-Omar said the town is now under opposition control. He posted a video with a fighter saying the government forces “ran away like rats.”
Backed by Russian air power, Assad's forces have over the past few days captured dozens of villages, including major rebel strongholds in the last opposition-held area.
The campaign also seized the last segments of the south-north highway known as the M5. When the government forces first took Saraqeb earlier this month, it marked their capture of the last major rebel-held town along the highway.
Over the past weeks, Turkey sent thousands of troops into Idlib province. Clashes between Syrian and Turkish troops have killed 18 Turkish soldiers.
More than 300 civilians have been killed since the beginning of December, when the Syrian government launched a new military campaign to retake Idlib, the last significant opposition-controlled region in the country.
According to the U.N., 948,000 people have been displaced in the government onslaught — an exodus of people fleeing their homes toward safer areas near the border with Turkey.