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Clashes in NW Syria as US-led troops conduct anti-jihadist operation: monitor

The Atme area, seen here in April 2020, has crowded camps that experts say jihadist leaders are using as bases to hide among people displaced by the conflict. ©AFP

Beirut (AFP) - Troops from the US-led anti-jihadist coalition landed in northwest Syria Thursday in search of wanted militants, resulting in clashes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

The Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria, said the helicopter-borne forces touched down near camps for displaced people in Atme, a town close to the border with Turkey in jihadist-dominated Idlib province.

Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP the operation was the largest since coalition special forces launched an October 2019 raid in Idlib that led to the killing of Islamic State (IS) chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The clashes lasted for two hours in the area, the monitor said, and the identities of the jihadists who were the focus of the operation have not been released.

The Observatory said there were "confirmed reports of fatalities" without providing details about their number or identities.

Residents in the area told AFP they heard shelling and gunfire.

In an audio recording circulating among residents and attributed to the coalition, an Arabic speaker can be heard asking women and children to evacuate their homes in the targeted area.

The international coalition, created to fight IS, did not reply to an AFP request for comment about the operation.

There are crowded camps in the Atme area that experts say jihadist leaders are using as bases to hide among people displaced by the conflict.

The coalition often conducts strikes in Idlib targeting jihadist leaders linked to Al-Qaeda. 

On October 23, the US military announced the killing of Al-Qaeda senior leader Abdul Hamid Al-Matar.

"Al-Qaeda uses Syria as a safe haven to rebuild, coordinate with external affiliates, and plan external operations," said Central Command spokesman Army Major John Rigsbee in a statement at that time.

Idlib is dominated by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which includes leaders of Al-Qaeda's former Syria chapter.

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