Syrian troops capture northwestern village from rebels

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government troops captured a northwestern village known for its medieval fortress on Thursday as they move deeper toward Idlib province, the last major rebel stronghold, activists and pro-government media said.

The latest wave of fighting that began last week is the most serious challenge yet to a cease-fire in the region, brokered by Russia and Turkey in September.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war-monitoring group, said government forces captured the village of Qalaat al-Madiq after insurgents pulled out. Idlib-based activist Alaa Moadamani confirmed the village’s capture.

The pro-government Syrian Central Military Media said troops took Qalaat al-Madiq and two smaller nearby villages. Government troops had been holding the nearby fortress, which also carries the name of Qalaat al-Madiq.

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The village, near the Orontes River, is a gateway to the fertile plain of al-Ghab, a breadbasket for the central province of Hama. The village was built on the site of the ancient city of Apamea and the fortress overlooking it was built during Muslim rule in the 12th century.

Thursday’s push came a day after Syrian troops took the nearby village of Kfar Nabudah— which activists called Idlib’s first line of defense

The latest offensive, which began April 30, has raised fears of a wider government push on Idlib, which is home to about 3 million people, many of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria.

The U.N. says over 150,000 people have been displaced recently within the enclave.

The government appears to be trying to secure access to a major highway that cuts through the rebel-held enclave. The highway was to reopen before the end of 2018, following the cease-fire agreement between Russia and Turkey, but it remains closed.

Rasheed al-Ahmed, a pharmacist from Kfar Nabudah, said all the village’s residents fled to the north, settling in camps along the border with Turkey. He said the government troops, aided by Russian forces, entered the village in droves with aircraft overhead. Neighboring villages were also emptied, he said, amid the fast-moving offensive.

“People are living between trees and in farms,” al-Ahmed said, adding he secured his family a place in Atmeh near the border. “It is a deplorable situation.”

The activist-operated Thiqa news agency filmed a group of civilians living between olive trees where they spread out rugs to sleep and sit on. The civilians hung their few belongings on plastic bags on the tree branches.

Moadamani, the Idlib-based activist, said “people are terrified as more flee their homes,” adding that many who fled were sleeping in their cars.

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