Syria rebels enter strategic northwestern town in Idlib province as government troops withdraw

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BEIRUT — Hard-line Syrian rebel groups entered a strategic town Saturday in northwestern Syria, sending government troops fleeing after intense clashes that have seen them take nearly all of a crucial province.

If they can hold the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, rebel fighters from Islamic factions — including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front — likely have cut government supply lines by land leading to the Mediterranean coast and a refuge of embattled President Bashar Assad. The town is one of the last bastions of the Assad's government in the area and fighting around it continued Saturday.

The offensive, which rebels have called the "Battle of Victory," comes less than a month after the provincial capital, also called Idlib, fell to the opposition.

Opposition television station Orient News aired images inside the town showing rebel fighters milling in the town's central square, raising their black flag. Opposition fighters attacked government checkpoints Saturday in a sprawling agricultural plain south of the town, activists said.

A Twitter account affiliated with the Nusra Front posted pictures apparently from inside the town Saturday, calling it "liberated." Other pictures posted on social media showed bodies of government troops piled in the street as rebels sat atop tanks in the town's center.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the rebels completely controlled the town after government troops and allied forces fled south. The group said there were clashes on the outskirts of the town as government aircraft struck targets there. A video the group posted showed civilians leaving the town accompanied by a number of government troops.

Syrian government media, quoting an unnamed military official, said troops engaged in fierce battles with the "armed terrorist groups" entering the town, saying they arrived in droves from the Turkish border. The official said the government forces then redeployed to the surrounding villages to avoid civilian casualties.

Asaad Kanjo, an activist in touch with residents of the town, said most civilians stayed indoors, fearing government retaliation.

The fight for the town began Wednesday and activists have said thousands of fighters took part in the offensive, which first targeted military facilities and checkpoints outside of town.

The Nusra Front and Syrian rebels have controlled the countryside and towns across Idlib province since 2012. After the fall of Idlib, the government moved its offices and staff to Jisr al-Shughour.

Assad has blamed Turkey for the fall of Idlib to Islamic fighters, saying Ankara provided "huge support" — logistic and military — that played the key role in the defeat of his forces.

Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed some 220,000 people, and wounded at least 1 million. At least 4 million Syrians have become refugees in neighboring countries. Nearly double that figure are displaced inside Syria because of the conflict.

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