BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian government forces have recovered control of two villages in northwestern Syria from rebel fighters who withdrew following intensive air and artillery bombardment, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday.
Rebel fighters captured the villages of al-Jabin and Tel Melah in northern Hama province in early June during a counter attack against government forces that have been waging a Russian-backed offensive in the area since late April.
A rebel commander in the area confirmed opposition fighters had withdrawn from al-Jabin after heavy bombardment.
The pro-Damascus al-Watan newspaper said the Syrian army had advanced in the area as Syrian and Russian warplanes targeted militant positions and after several days of preparatory fire.
More than 400 civilians have been confirmed killed in the escalation of violence in northwestern Syria over the last three months and more than 440,000 displaced, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said last week.
Ongoing shelling and air strikes included the use of “indiscriminate weapons, such as barrel bombs”, it said. The use of these weapons, which are dropped from helicopters, by the Syrian army has been widely recorded in the eight-year conflict.
The targeted area is part of the last major foothold of the rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad, who has vowed to take back “every inch” of Syria. However, his side has failed to make significant gains during the latest campaign.
The Idlib area of the northwest is dominated by Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadists formerly known as the Nusra Front. It is proscribed as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council. Groups backed by Turkey also have a presence in the area.
The Syrian government has described its operations as a response to militant violations of ceasefire agreements.
(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)