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Syria regime presses offensive despite Turkish warning

Smoke billows from bombardment by the Syrian government forces and allies on the town of Sarmin near Idlib in the northwestern province of the same name. ©AFP

Beirut (AFP) - Syrian regime forces Wednesday pressed on with their offensive in the northwest that has displaced half a million people, despite heightened tensions with Turkey.

Intensive aerial bombardment and ground fighting in the jihadist-dominated Idlib region since December have killed almost 300 civilians and triggered one of the largest waves of displacement in the nine-year war.

The United Nations and aid groups have condemned the escalation and called for an end to hostilities in a region that is home to three million people, half of them already displaced from other parts of Syria. 

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday warned that his country would not allow Syrian forces to gain more ground and accused them of driving "innocent and grieving people" towards the Turkish border.

But Russian-backed Syrian regime forces on Wednesday pressed on with their offensive in Idlib, where they have seized more than 20 towns and villages from rebels and jihadists over the past 24 hours, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and state news agency SANA.

With their latest advance, Damascus loyalists have nearly encircled Saraqeb in southern Idlib and were now within one kilometre (less than a mile) of the strategic highway town which has been emptied of its residents following weeks of bombardment, the Observatory said.

Holdout rebels and jihadists can only exit from the north, with regime forces deployed on all other sides, according to the war monitor group.

A military source quoted by SANA late Tuesday said the Syrian army was giving its enemies in Saraqeb and nearby areas a "last chance," calling on them to surrender their arms.

The Syrian government was poised this week to recapture Saraqeb.But its push hit a snag after regime forces exchanged deadly fire with Turkish troops on Monday, an escalation UN chief Antonio Guterres called "extremely worrying".

Regime shelling of Turkish positions in Idlib killed at least five Turkish soldiers and three civilians, Ankara said.

The Observatory reported that retaliatory fire from Turkey killed at least 13 Syrian government troops. 

The exchange was their deadliest clash since Ankara sent troops to Syria in 2016. 

It further tested the uneasy coordination between Russia and Turkey, the two main foreign brokers in the Syrian conflict.

Under a 2018 deal with Russia, Turkey set up 12 military observation posts in Idlib aimed at preventing a full assault by Syrian forces.

Erdogan on Wednesday urged Damascus to back off those posts. 

"At the moment, two of our 12 observation posts are behind the regime's lines," he said. "We hope the regime will withdraw from our observation posts before the end of the month of February.

"If the regime does not pull back, Turkey will be obliged to take matters into its own hands."

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