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Air strikes intensify as Syrian government forces advance on key town in Idlib

A monitor said Syrian government forces captured key parts of the highway town of Saraqeb as death toll mounts
An aerial view taken on 6 February 2020 shows smoke billowing from tyres burnt by Syrians in an attempt to hinder air strikes in the town of Binnish in Idlib (AFP)

At least 17 people have been killed in air strikes as pro-government forces advanced on a key town in the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib.

A monitor said forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had seized large parts of the key highway town of Saraqeb.

The battle for Saraqeb, which sits at the junction of two major highways coveted by the government, came as Turkey sent reinforcements north of the town overnight, a day after Ankara warned pro-Damascus forces to back off.

After breaking into Saraqeb on Wednesday, Syrian government forces on Thursday seized large sectors of the town after a day of heavy battles against rebels and militants, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The Britain-based activist monitor said the forces pushed back a "counter-offensive" by the opposition fighters in Saraqeb, a town of 110,000 residents now almost deserted following months of bombardment.

Syria's state news agency SANA confirmed the report saying government troops were carrying out "mopping up" operations as well as "dismantling mines and explosives" planted there by the rebels and militants.

The UN Security Council was due to meet on Thursday in New York at an emergency session following clashes this week between the Syrian and Turkish militaries.

The UN envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, was to report on the situation in Idlib.

Tension between Ankara and Damascus mounted after Turkish and pro-Assad forces on Monday exchanged deadly fire in a rare escalation that killed more than 20 people on the two sides.

The uptick in bombardment of the Idlib region of some three million people has killed more than 300 civilians since mid-December, including 17 on Thursday, the Observatory said.

Ten of those killed on Thursday perished in a Russian air strike on the eastern outskirts of Idlib city, the monitor said.

The United Nations and aid groups have called for an immediate end to the violence, which has pushed around 586,000 people from their homes in two months.

Israeli strikes

The advance comes as 23 Syrian and foreign fighters were killed in pre-dawn Israeli strikes on targets south of Damascus.

Pre-dawn air strikes by Israel's military on Thursday killed 23 Syrian and foreign fighters. 

Three Iranians and seven Tehran-backed foreign fighters were killed near Kisweh, south of the capital, according to the Observatory.

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Eight Syrian air defence personnel meanwhile lost their lives in Mezzeh and Jisr Baghdad, west of the capital, the Britain-based war monitor said.

Five Syrian members of a pro-Iran group were killed in the Ezra area in the southern province of Daraa.

A Syrian army source quoted by state news agency SANA said air defences responded to two waves of Israeli strikes after midnight.

An Israeli army spokesman declined to comment on the strikes when contacted by AFP but Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria since the civil war erupted, mainly targeting government forces and their Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Syria's war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of protests against Assad.