Regime forces mass in northwest Syria as bombing continues

Idlib city has largely been spared air strikes since a major bombing campaign on Idlib province by Russia and Assad's forces began in late April, but on Saturday its outskirts were hit from the air.

BEIRUT - A car bomb exploded in the rebel-held Syrian city of Idlib on Saturday, a war monitor and opposition news channel said, as air strikes hit its outskirts in a government offensive on the last major opposition bastion.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a car blew up in the al-Qusoor neighbourhood. The opposition-run Orient News said the blast killed one and wounded some others.

Idlib province, of which Idlib is the main city, is in northwest Syria and forms part of the last big rebel stronghold in Syria.

Backed by Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces have chipped away at the south of the jihadist-run bastion of Idlib in past weeks after months of deadly bombardment.

The new push by Syrian government forces to take the area has seen heavy strikes and advances in the south of Idlib province and nearby Hama, prompting a new civilian exodus. Hundreds of people have been killed in the campaign since late April, the United Nations says.

Idlib city itself has largely been spared air strikes since a major bombing campaign on the territory began in late April, but on Saturday its outskirts were hit from the air, the Observatory and opposition media said. Heavy strikes continued to hit the south of Idlib province.

The Observatory reported earlier on Saturday that regime forces were massing in the northwestern region in a bid to push further north after overrunning a key town and surrounding a Turkish army outpost.

On Wednesday, Assad's forces seized the key town of Khan Sheikhun from jihadists and allied rebels, and on Friday overran the countryside to the south of the town, encircling a Turkish observation post there.

On Saturday, loyalist fighters gathered north of Khan Sheikhun, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

"The day after they controlled the area south of Khan Sheikhun, regime forces are massing in the area north of it," Rami Abdel Rahman, the head of the Britain-based monitoring group, said.

They are "preparing to continue their advance towards the area of Maaret al-Numan", a town some 25 kilometres (15 miles) to the north, he said.

That area has come under intense Russian and regime aerial bombardment and been depleted of almost all of its residents in the past two weeks, the Observatory says.

After Khan Sheikhun, Maaret al-Numan is the next town on a key highway running across the Idlib province that analysts say is coveted by the regime.

Any full government control of that road would allow it to connect the capital Damascus with second city Aleppo, retaken from opposition fighters in late 2016.

The Idlib region of some three million people lies on the border with Turkey, and Turkish troops have been deployed at a dozen points around it in an attempt to set up a buffer zone to protect it.

A deal between Russia and rebel backer Turkey signed in September last year sought to set up the demilitarised area to avert a full-out regime assault, but jihadists refused to withdraw.

Assad advisor Buthaina Shaaban on Friday accused Turkey of "turning the observation points into spots for transporting weapons and occupying a part of our land".

Earlier Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu denied the observation post in Morek had been surrounded and vowed that his country's troops would not withdraw from there.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is to visit Moscow on Tuesday for talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.