Syrian Forces Claim Advance in Offensive Against Last Rebel Stronghold

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Syrians carrying their belongings drive towards the northern areas of Syria's Idlib province as they flee the country's last major opposition bastion, on December 20, 2019.
Syrians carrying their belongings drive towards the northern areas of Syria's Idlib province as they flee the country's last major opposition bastion, on December 20, 2019. Credit: AFP

Syrian government forces on Saturday seized more territory in the country's last rebel stronghold, state media reported, as part of a Russia-backed campaign that has displaced thousands of civilians.

Syria's state news agency SANA reported that government forces had cleansed three villages from "terrorists" in the north-western province of Idlib in the months-long campaign.

On Friday, the Syrian army tightened control on 10 other villages once ruled by rebels in rural Idlib, according to SANA.

On April 30, the Syrian government, supported by Russian air power, began a large-scale offensive against rebels in the neighbouring provinces of Hama and Idlib.

In recent weeks, the Syrian forces and Russian jets have intensified attacks in Idlib, forcing thousands of people to flee to safer areas, according to activists.

Around 72,000 civilians have been displaced by the violence since early December, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported on Saturday.

At least seven civilians were killed and 20 injured on Saturday in government airstrikes in Idlib's rebel town of Saraqeb, the Britain-based watchdog added.

The United Nations has estimated that more than 400,000 people have been displaced since the onslaught started in Idlib in late April.

In recent months, government forces have retaken large swathes of territory from West-backed rebels and hardline jihadists in different parts of the country.

However, Syria remains roiled by economic woes, including an acute energy shortage, amid Western sanctions.

Smoke billows from a building following a reported bombardment by pro-Syrian government forces in the town of Maaret al-Numan in Syria's Idlib province, December 20, 2019.Credit: AFP

Three oil and gas installations in central Syria were the target of synchronized attacks late Friday that are believed to have been carried out by drones, Syrian state media and the observatory said.

The "terrorist" attacks in the central province of Homs caused damage to production units and fires, SANA reported, citing the country's Oil Ministry.

Oil Minister Ali Ghanem said the fires were later brought under control and repairs on the damaged units were under way, according to SANA.

"The targeting of the oil sector is systematic. The attacks were synchronized and carried out in one and the same way," he added without giving details.

The attacks hit an oil refinery and two gas facilities in different parts of Homs, according to SANA.

Sources close to the Syrian government told dpa that the attacks were thought to have been carried out by unidentified drones.
There were no casualties, the sources said on condition of anonymity.

No group has so far claimed responsibility for the attacks.
Islamic State extremists took control of a gas field in rural Homs on Friday after an attack on Syrian government forces there.

Despite suffering recent military setbacks and territorial losses, Islamic State militants have periodically taken credit for attacks in the country.

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