BEIRUT: Turkish shelling Monday killed nine regime fighters in northwest Syria, where Ankara-backed rebels are fighting off advancing regime forces, a monitor said.
Syrian regime forces have since December clawed back parts of the last major opposition bastion of Idlib in violence that has displaced almost a million people.
Fighting raged on Monday, killing almost 100 fighters on both sides around the jihadist-dominated bastion, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said.
Those included 41 pro-regime fighters, as well as 53 jihadists and allied rebels.
Overall on Monday, the regime advanced rapidly in the south of the bastion, but lost the town of Nayrab along the M4 highway to Turkish-backed rebels in the southeast.
Turkish shelling in that area killed four regime fighters near Nayrab and another five near the town of Saraqeb to its east, the Britain-based Observatory said.
Opposition fighters had already broken back into Nayrab last week after the regime seized it at the start of the month, but then lost it again several hours later.
Saraqeb, which lies at the intersection of the M4 and another important highway the M5, has been under regime control since Feb 8.
Earlier Monday, Russian air strikes killed five civilians in the Jabal al-Zawiya area in the south of the bastion, the Observatory said.
In fighting on the ground, regime forces seized 10 towns and villages south of the M4, which links the coastal regime stronghold of Latakia to government-held second city Aleppo, it said.
State news agency Sana, for its part, said “units of the Syrian army continued to progress in the south of Idlib” province.
UN warns of ‘bloodbath’
Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said the regime’s aim was to wrest back control of stretches of the M4 still under the control of jihadists and allied rebels.
That would require operations against the towns of Ariha and Jisr al-Shughur, both along the M4.
Analysts expect a tough battle for Jisr al-Shughur, held by the jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party whose fighters mainly hail from China’s Uighur Muslim minority.
They are allied to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate which dominates the Idlib region.
Loyalist forces have already taken back control of the M5, which connects the capital with Aleppo.
They have also secured the region around the northern city, a major pre-war industrial hub.
Fighting in northwest Syria since December has forced some 900,000 people to flee their homes and shelters amid bitter cold.
The United Nations said Monday that the latest fighting was coming “dangerously close” to encampments of the displaced, risking an imminent “bloodbath”.
Mark Cutts, a UN humanitarian coordinator, also told reporters in Geneva that the world body was trying to double aid deliveries across a border crossing with Turkey from 50 to 100 trucks a day.
Syria’s war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.