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Syrian government forces advance against rebels in Hama

Forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad regain control over two villages in northwest Syria following nearly two months of intense fighting
Hundreds have died since government forces began fighting in June to reclaim control over two villages in Hama that opposition fighters seized (Reuters)

Syrian government forces regained control over two villages in northwest Syria after opposition rebels retreated following deadly clashes and Russia-backed intensive air strikes, a war monitor said Monday.

The government forces of President Bashar al-Assad reclaimed overnight the villages of al-Jibeen and Tal Maleh in Hama province, which fell into rebels' grip in June, said the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR). 

The forces lost hundreds in the battles to reclaim the villages, SOHR, which gathes information from Syria activist sources, said.

As fighting and bombing continued into the night, the death toll continued to rise since the army's advances, leaving 14 opposition fighters and eight government loyalists dead, SOHR reported.

Northern Hama along with Idlib province and parts of Aleppo and Latakia are under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a militant group led by Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate.

The greater Idlib area was supposed to be protected by a de-escalation zone under a September 2018 agreement between Russia and Turkey. However, since the end of April, it has come under intensive fire by Damascus and its backer Moscow. 

The observatory said on Monday that the region has been the target of 130 air strikes in 91 days of the "heaviest escalation".

The intense wave of raids by the two allies has claimed the lives of more than 770 civilians in the region since the end of April, according to the SOHR.

Government forces and rebels have also clashed on the edges of the de-escalation zone, with battles killing nearly 2,000 combatants, including more than 930 pro-government troops over the same period, the Britain-based Observatory said.

Tit-for-tat

On Monday, Syrian troops combed Tal Maleh and al-Jibeen for militant holdouts while destroying their headquarters and stockpiles, a military source told state agency SANA, confirming the villages' recapture.

The two areas have come under alternating control between Syrian government forces and rebels in recent weeks, following a series of tit-for-tat attacks.

On Monday, government and Russian warplanes pummelled various parts of Syria's northwest, killing six civilians in northern Hama, the Observatory said.

More than 400,000 people have been displaced by the flareup since the end of April, according to the United Nations.

The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.