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Syrian Opp. Retakes Town From Gov't    02/27 06:16

   BEIRUT (AP) -- Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters on Thursday retook a 
strategic northwestern town in Syria that was recently captured by government 
forces, and cut the highway linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern 
city of Aleppo days after the government reopened it for the first time since 
2012. 

   The retaking of Saraqeb which sits on the highway is a setback for Syrian 
President Bashar Assad's forces who have scored major gains in a weeks long 
Russian-backed campaign in the last rebel stronghold in Idlib province. 
Officials had hailed the reopening of the motorway, known as the M5, as a major 
victory in the nine-year conflict.

   The government's military campaign to recapture Idlib, the last 
opposition-held stronghold in the country, has triggered a humanitarian 
catastrophe and the war's largest single wave of displacement. According to the 
U.N. almost 950,000 civilians have been displaced since early Decembers, and 
more than 300 have been killed. Most have fled further north to safer areas 
near the Turkish border, overwhelming camps already crowded with refugees in 
cold winter weather. 

   The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war 
monitoring group, said the opposition fighters seized the town of Saraqeb after 
intense bombardment by Turkish troops. Turkey and Russia support opposite sides 
in Syria's brutal civil war, with Ankara backing the opposition and Moscow 
backing Assad.

   From inside Saraqeb, activist Taher al-Omar said the town is now under 
opposition control. He posted a video with a fighter saying the government 
forces "ran away like rats."

   The Observatory said more than 60 fighters were killed on both sides since 
Wednesday, adding that later on Thursday, government forces launched a 
counteroffensive under the cover of Russian airstrikes to try retake the town.

   Syrian state media reported intense clashes near Saraqeb, saying insurgents 
sent suicide car bombs and that Turkish forces bombarded the area. It said a 
small group of insurgents reached the highway to score a "propaganda stunt," 
adding that "Syrian troops are dealing with them."

   Backed by Russian air power, Assad's forces have over the past few days 
captured dozens of villages, including major rebel strongholds in the last 
opposition-held area.

   The campaign also seized the last segments of the south-north M5 highway. 
When the government forces first took Saraqeb earlier this month, it marked 
their capture of the last major rebel-held town along the highway.

   Over the past weeks, Turkey sent thousands of troops into Idlib province. 
Clashes between Syrian and Turkish troops have killed 18 Turkish soldiers.

   Turkey's Defense Ministry said on Thursday that two Turkish soldiers were 
killed in Syria in an air attack in Idlib province the previous day, and that 
two others were wounded.

   Turkey responded by targeting Syrian government forces. An air defense 
missile system, an anti-aircraft gun, three tanks, an ammunition vehicle, an 
anti-tank weapon and two construction vehicles were destroyed, the ministry 
said.

   ____

   Associated Press writers Andrew Wilks in Ankara, Turkey, and Albert Aji in 
Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.


(KR)

 
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