BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces pressed ahead with their military offensive in Idlib, seizing a cluster of villages on the southeastern edges of the province on Thursday as the overall civilian death toll from the campaign rose further.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said troops captured three small villages in the area, as they continued their assault with the next target appearing to be the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, which lies near the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
Last week, the troops captured the town of Khan Sheikhoun, which also sits on the highway.
Idlib is the Syrian opposition’s final stronghold in the country, and President Bashar Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, are determined to recapture it. For now, their main aim is to reopen the M5 highway and they have been pounding towns and villages that lie near that route. Opening the highway would cut the trip between the country’s two largest cities by two hours.
The opposition Syrian Civil Defense group of first responders said airstrikes on Maaret al-Numan on Wednesday killed 12 people and wounded 34. The group, also known as the White Helmets, released a video showing the rescue operations. In the footage, bodies can be seen trapped in a collapsed building after it was targeted by jets.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, also reported 12 deaths, including two women and six children, and said 30 people were wounded.
The U.N. says that over 550 civilians have been killed and over 400,000 people displaced from northern Hama and southern Idlib provinces since the offensive on Idlib began in late April. Almost half of those displaced, some of them multiple times, live in camps and reception centers in the open air or under trees.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that “satellite imagery shows entire towns and villages have been razed to the ground, while dozens of communities have been emptied.”
He called on the warring parties to ensure the safety of civilians as clashes, shelling and airstrikes escalate.
Dujarric said three-quarters of the 3 million people being impacted by the violence are women and children.