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Syrian government clashes with Idlib fighters leave almost 100 dead

Attack led by Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate on several government positions sparks fresh fighting
Man preparing to flee fighting in Syria's Idlib province watches from balcony as truck is loaded with his belongings on Sunday (AFP)

Two days of clashes between government forces and armed groups in Syria's last major opposition bastion have killed almost 100 on both sides, undermining a months-long ceasefire agreement, a UK-based activist group said on Monday.

The battles in the northwestern province of Idlib are "the most violent" there since a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement went into effect in late August, said Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, according to AFP.

Residents of villages fled north to escape the fighting, adding to the hundreds of thousands who have already flooded out of the province's violence-plagued south since fighting escalated earlier this year.

"I don't want to see my children trapped under rubble," said Hafez, one of those who escaped the flashpoint area along with his wife and three kids two days earlier.

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On Sunday morning, clouds of smoke rose over the Maaret al-Numan region as warplanes pounded allied rebels in positions they had recently recaptured from government forces, an AFP correspondent said.

Fifty-one pro-government fighters had been killed over 48 hours, while 45 of their opponents had also lost their lives, the Observatory said.

The Syrian government does not usually divulge casualty figures

The Observatory said an attack led by Syria's former al-Qaeda affiliate on several government positions had sparked the fighting.

On Saturday, the rebels launched an offensive in the southeastern countryside of Idlib in a bid to capture several sites near the Abu Dhuhour Airport, according to the AMN website.

A field report said rebels had captured four towns from the Syrian army after catching them off guard.

Overnight Saturday, the Syrian army backed by Russian warplanes launched a counter-push to reclaim territory it had lost in the battles, the Observatory said.

Government forces have since regained lost ground but violent clashes are ongoing, the Observatory said.

Air strikes on Sunday afternoon hit rebel areas dozens of kilometres from the main front lines, signalling a potential escalation.

'Terrorist' holdout

The Idlib region, home to about three million people including many displaced by Syria's eight-year civil war, is controlled by the country's former al-Qaeda affiliate.

The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance also controls parts of neighbouring Aleppo and Latakia provinces, with battles also currently taking place in the latter, according to the monitor. 

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The region is one of the last holdouts of opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who now controls more than 70 percent of the country, according to the Observatory.

Assad has repeatedly vowed to reclaim all of Syria, including Idlib, which he views as a "terrorist" holdout.

Assad, during a visit to the area in October, his first since the start of the eight-year war, said that defeating rebels in the province was key to ending the conflict.

Between late April and the end of August, Idlib was pounded ceaselessly by Syrian soldiers backed by Russian air power.

The Observatory estimates almost 1,000 civilians were killed in that period, and the UN says that more than 400,000 people were displaced.

A ceasefire announced by Russia in late August has reduced fighting, but air strikes and clashes increased in November.

According to the Observatory, more than 160 civilians and more than 460 fighters, including government forces, have been killed since the deal went into effect.

Turkish operation

The Idlib front was the main focus of Syrian government forces before Turkey in October launched an invasion into a swathe of northeast Syria along its border.

The operation against Kurdish forces who had controlled the region since 2012 paved the way for mass government deployments in the area for the first time in seven years.

Syrian troops arrived in positions bordering Turkey as well as other parts of the northeast under a deal with Kurdish forces seeking protection from Ankara and its Syrian proxies.

On Sunday, the commander-in-chief of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces said Russian troops would deploy in three key areas under its control.

"We have agreed on the deployment of Russian forces in Amuda, Tal Tamr and Ain Issa to secure safety and stability in the area," Mazloum Abdi said after a meeting with the chief of Russian forces in Syria.

Syria government troops had already deployed in the three areas in October to help Kurdish forces contain Turkey's invasion.

The war in Syria has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it erupted in 2011.