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Syrian rebels blow up bridges in bid to delay government assault on Idlib

Images of Russian ships gathering in the Mediterranean have sparked fears of an imminent assault on Idlib
Syrians in Idlib protest against a possible government assault as tensions continue to escalate (AFP)

Syrian rebels in Idlib have blown up two bridges in a bid to delay an imminent government assault on the country's last remaining rebel-held territory, a monitor has said. 

The latest rebel move comes amid warnings by the United Nations that an all-out assault on Idlib by government forces could lead to further displacement and a renewed humanitarian disaster. 

The bridges over the Orontes River linked areas of neighbouring Hama province, under government control, to rebel-held territory in Idlib, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

They were blown up by factions known as the National Liberation Front (NLF), observatory head Rami Abdurrahman said.

"They were the two main bridges in the area, but there are others," he told the AFP news agency on Friday.

The bridges were located in the Al-Ghab plain, which straddles Hama and Idlib provinces and could be one of the first targets of any government offensive.

Government forces have been massing around Idlib province for weeks, particularly in Al-Ghab, which was once a key farming area.

"The rebels have seen the intense activity on the regime side, with the arrival of tanks and armoured vehicles," Abdurrahman said.

"Rebel groups are reinforcing their positions in anticipation of a military operation."

Meanwhile, NLF fighters were seen on Thursday reinforcing their positions in southern Idlib with sandbags, an AFP correspondent reported.

The correspondent said the fighters had also dug trenches and underground tunnels near the frontlines.

"We are consolidating our positions to prepare for any eventual regime military operation," explained Abu Marwan, an NLF commander.

"We've spotted several regime positions, and we are monitoring them. We will retaliate directly with all sorts of weapons in case of any movement" from the regime side, he added.

In recent days, both the government and its ally Russia have stepped up their rhetoric against the rebel presence in Idlib, which is dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) an alliance formed by al-Qaeda's former Syrian branch, al-Nusra Front.

"The Syrian command has decided to defeat al-Nusra Front in Idlib no matter the sacrifices that it would entail," Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Thursday.

Russian ships gathering

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called on the West not to stand in the way of an "anti-terror operation" in Idlib, saying: "This abscess needs to be liquidated."

Turkey - which shares a border with Idlib, has troops in the area and backs the NLF - has expressed opposition to any large-scale offensive that could spark a new exodus of refugees.

Idlib is home to more than three million Syrians where thousands have been displaced to the province from former rebel-held strongholds lost to government forces. 

Pictures of Russian ships gathering in the Mediterranean have sparked further concerns of an imminent assault on the last remaining rebel area. 

An attack on Idlib by Damascus and Moscow could be the last major battle of the civil war that has torn Syria apart since 2011.

More than 350,000 people have been killed in the conflict and millions have been forced to flee their homes.

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