BEIRUT - Syrian government forces battled rebels and were hit by Turkish artillery barrages as they tried to seize the town of Saraqeb in northwestern Idlib province in a new push to recapture the last rebel stronghold, witnesses and a war monitor said.
Government forces backed by air strikes had on Wednesday encircled and entered Saraqeb, 15 km (9 miles) east of Idlib city, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights had said in a report corroborated by witnesses.
The town lies at the junction of two main roads that President Bashar al-Assad seeks to fully control under the campaign to regain Idlib province, the last rebel bastion in the nearly nine-year-long civil war.
On another front, Syrian air defences intercepted Israeli missiles over Damascus early on Thursday that were fired at military targets in southern Syria including near the capital, the defence ministry said.
The swift advance towards Idlib city has caused a new exodus of thousands of civilians towards the border with Turkey, which backs some insurgent groups fighting Assad.
Rebel fighters "managed to push back government forces from most of Saraqeb in an attack from the northern part of the town that coincided with Turkish shelling against advancing government forces," the Observatory said.
Witnesses said government forces came under shelling from Turkish observation posts in the area.
The renewed fighting is taking place despite a Jan. 12 ceasefire agreement between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides of the conflict.
Shelling by Syrian government forces killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday, prompting Turkish forces to strike back.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Wednesday to drive back Syrian troops in Idlib unless they withdraw by the end of the month to stem an assault which he said had displaced nearly 1 million people.
The attacks by Israeli warplanes were launched over the Golan Heights and Lebanese air space in two waves, one near Damascus and another near Deraa and Quneitra provinces, the Syrian defence ministry said.
The Syrian air defences downed a large number of missiles but the attack had caused material damage and injured eight "fighters", without specifying their nationality, it said.
The Israeli military declined to comment.
Israel has repeatedly bombed Iranian-backed militia targets in Syria, saying its goal was to end Tehran’s military presence there, which Western intelligence sources say has expanded in recent years.