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Syrian Troops Capture Rebel-Held Town  01/29 06:29

   DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Syrian government forces captured one of the largest 
and most strategic rebel-held towns in the country's northwest, the Syrian 
military and opposition activists said Wednesday, part of a Russian-backed 
military assault that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people fleeing to 
safer areas.

   The town of Maaret al-Numan in Idlib province, which had been in rebel hands 
since 2012, sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo and is considered 
critical to President Bashar Assad's forces. The town is now largely empty as a 
result of intense bombardment in recent weeks.

   Its capture is the latest in a series of military triumphs for Assad. His 
forces have retaken control of most of the country from rebel fighters, largely 
because of blanket air support from Russia, which helped turn the tide in the 
nearly nine-year civil war. 

   Syria's nearly nine-year conflict left more than 400,000 people dead and 
displaced half of Syria's population, including more than 5 million who are 
refugees, mostly in neighboring countries. 

   An exception has been Idlib province, in the northwestern corner of the 
country near the Turkish border, which is held by opposition fighters and is 
dominated by al-Qaida-linked militants. The province is home to some 3 million 
people, many of them internally displaced.

   Syrian government forces have been on the offensive for more than a month in 
Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the country. But in recent days, 
the government captured more than a dozen villages in the area as the 
insurgents' defenses began to crumble. 

   "Our armed forces continued operations in southern parts of Idlib with the 
aim of putting an end to crimes committed by terrorist groups," said army 
spokesman Brig. Gen. Ali Mayhoub. He listed more than a dozen villages and 
towns captured, including Maaret al-Numan.

   The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war 
monitor, said insurgents withdrew from the town late on Tuesday. Syrian troops 
had left a road west of the town opened apparently to give a chance for 
insurgents to pull out and to avoid street battles inside the town.

   Amid intense airstrikes and heavy bombardment, trucks loaded with displaced 
people from areas surrounding Maaret al-Numan, including Jabal al-Zawiya, 
headed toward areas near the Turkish border, already bursting with internally 
displaced people. 

   "Only God knows where our destination will be, where we will find a house. 
We do not know anything, maybe we will sleep in the car," said one woman who 
was among those fleeing with her family on Tuesday. She declined to give her 
name, fearing for her safety. 

   The Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group active in 
northwestern Syria reported that until the end of December more than 216,000 
people fled their homes in Idlib. In a new release, the group said that 167,000 
fled since the beginning of January bringing the total number to more than 
383,000 people.

   Farther north, 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.

   Maaret al-Numan sits on the highway linking Damascus with Aleppo, once 
Syria's main commercial hub. With the town's fall, government forces are now 
closer to retaking the critical north-south highway.

   In August, Syrian troops captured another town along the highway, Khan 
Sheikhoun. Now that Syrian troops are in control of Maaret al-Numan, their next 
target is likely to be Saraqeb, which would become the last major town on the 
M5 highway that remains outside government control.


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