BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces and insurgents fought fierce battles that left dozens dead in the country’s northwest Friday as troops tried to regain control of two villages they lost earlier this month, state media and an opposition war monitor said.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the army carried out “intense rocket and artillery strikes” on insurgent positions on the front line in the central province of Hama and nearby Idlib that is the last major rebel stronghold in Syria’s civil war, now In its ninth year.
SANA said the aim of the bombing is to destroy fortifications built by insurgents, many of them members of the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS. It said the strikes were mostly near the villages of Jubayn and Tel Milh adding that they inflicted many casualties among the insurgents.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, said troops were trying to capture the villages of Jubayn and Tel Milh launching an offensive around dawn Friday. The group said during Friday’s fighting alone, 51 troops and pro-government gunmen were killed as well as 45 insurgents.
Syrian government forces launched an offensive against the rebel-held territory in late April, leading to the collapse of a cease-fire negotiated by Turkey and Russia last year.
The violence has forced an estimated 330,000 people to flee their homes since late April, moving toward the Turkish border, according to the United Nations. Several health facilities were targeted in the violence.
More than 2,000 people including 532 civilians have been killed on both sides since the offensive began on April 30, according to the Observatory.
On Thursday, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said a Turkish soldier was killed in an artillery strike by Syrian government forces in northwestern Idlib province.
The strike hit a Turkish observation post. The attack marked the first Turkish death in a Syrian government attack since it launched an offensive to retake Idlib two months ago.
The ministry said late Thursday that three soldiers were wounded in the attack and have been evacuated from Syria. It said Ankara warned Turkey would respond with “heaviest punishment.”
Turkish troops man 12 observation posts in Idlib as part of a de-escalation agreement struck with Russia and Iran in September 2017.