MAARET AL-NUMAN - Regime forces have seized dozens of towns and villages in northwest Syria from jihadists following days of violent clashes, fuelling an exodus of civilians, a war monitor said Sunday.
The fresh advances in Idlib province bring regime loyalists closer to capturing one of the largest urban centres in Syria's last major opposition bastion, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
"This push is an attempt to get closer to Maaret al-Numan," Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman said.
Residents of the southern Idlib town flooded out of the area fearing further advances, a correspondent there said.
The Observatory said more than 30,000 people had fled the flashpoint area in southern Idlib in recent days.
Abu Akram, a resident, said rescue workers and local relief groups were struggling to get families out.
"Everybody is working at full capacity but they can't handle such a large number of people," the father of five said after he couldn't find a vehicle to drive his own family further north.
The jihadist-dominated Idlib region hosts some three million people including many displaced by years of violence in other parts of Syria.
The Damascus regime has repeatedly vowed to take back the area and bombardment has continued despite a ceasefire announced in August.
Heightened regime and Russian bombardment on the Maaret al-Numan region since December 16 has forced tens of thousands of vulnerable people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations.
The UN has called for "immediate de-escalation" and warned of further mass displacement if the violence continues.
"Nowhere is safe. If we stay inside our homes, or if we flee outside, we will die either way," said Abu Akram.
Damascus loyalists have since Thursday been locked in battles with jihadists and allied rebels, seizing a total of 25 towns and villages from their control, according to the Observatory.
Four days of fighting has killed 103 militants as well as 71 regime loyalists, bringing the total toll to more than 170 dead on both sides, added the monitor, which is based in Britain and relies on an extensive network inside Syria.
The Idlib region is controlled by the country's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Pro-government forces launched a blistering offensive against the region in April, killing around 1,000 civilians and displacing more than 400,000 people from their homes.
Syria's war has killed over 370,000 people and displaced millions since beginning in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.