Syrian troops enter key rebel-held town amid bombardment

Thousands displaced in northern Idlib province as regime targets Maaret al-Numan, which lies on the coveted M5 highway linking Damascus to Syria's second city Aleppo.

DAMASCUS - Syrian government forces Tuesday entered a key rebel-held town in the country's northwest after surrounding it on three sides, sending thousands of people fleeing to safety in areas farther north, opposition activists and pro-government media said.

Maaret al-Numan is a town of symbolic and strategic importance in the country's last major opposition bastion, the northwestern province of Idlib.

The pro-government Sham FM reported that troops had taken control of most of Maaret al-Numan, adding that Syrian soldiers were conducting search operations as experts began to dismantle explosives and booby-traps left behind by militants.

Earlier in the day, Syrian troops captured nearby Kfar Roummah, a village that lies southwest of Maaret al-Numan, according to the Observatory. Syrian state TV confirmed that government forces were inside.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier said Maaret al-Numan was "fully encircled and regime forces have started to storm a western section of the town," which was mostly deserted after months of bombardment. Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman added that regime and Russian warplanes were pounding the area. State media said Syrian troops were keeping a road leading west out of the town open, apparently to give insurgents a chance to withdraw.

Maaret al-Numan lies on the M5 highway linking Damascus to Syria's second city Aleppo, a main artery coveted by the regime as it tries to rekindle a moribund economy. It is also the second biggest urban centre in the beleaguered opposition bastion of Idlib in northwestern Syria, and has been outside regime control since 2012.

In August, Syrian troops captured another town that the M5 highway passes through, Khan Sheikhoun. If Syrian troops capture Maaret al-Numan, their next target is likely to be Saraqeb, which would become the last major town on the M5 highway outside government control.

Damascus loyalists have since Friday seized more than 23 towns and villages around Maaret al-Numan, fully encircling it, the Observatory said. In areas north of Maaret al-Numan, bombardment by regime ally Russia has prompted a fresh wave of displacement in recent days, with hundreds of vehicles packing a key exit route towards areas near the border with Turkey, according to the Observatory.

Most were fleeing Saraqeb and the Jabal al-Zawiya region. Russia has bombed areas around the main exit routes, despite the heavy outflow of civilians, according to the Observatory.

The advance is part of a multi-pronged regime push in northwest Syria, dominated by jihadists of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance and their rebel allies. It came as Syrian forces were also advancing against insurgent positions west of Aleppo, according to state media and opposition activists. Government forces began an offensive on the western suburbs of Aleppo in an attempt to push insurgents away from Syria's largest city. Rebels have rained artillery and mortar shells down on Aleppo in recent days.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that Washington “condemns these unjustifiable attacks against the people of northwest Syria.” He added that the US calls for an immediate cease-fire and "full access to the affected areas by humanitarian organizations to alleviate the suffering of the hundreds of thousands that have fled the incessant bombing.”

The government offensive in Idlib province has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. The province is home to 3 million civilians, half of whom have already been displaced from other parts of the country, and the UN has warned of the growing risk of a humanitarian catastrophe along the Turkish border. The violence has displaced around 358,000 people in Syria's northwest since December, the United Nations says.

As the violence raged, the UN special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, arrived in the capital Damascus to meet with officials. Pedersen is expected to talk during his visit about activating the constitutional committee whose job is to draft a new constitution for the country. The 150-member committee met in Geneva in October but has failed for make progress.