BEIRUT: Syrian jihadists and allied rebels advanced against government forces in central Hama province today, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said. The Britain-based group said the jihadists and allied fighters have taken 11 towns and villages from government troops since they began the surprise offensive on Tuesday.
It reported heavy fighting in the north and northeast of the province, with government air strikes targeting areas captured in recent days. Overnight and into this morning, three villages fell from government control, with the advancing forces nearing the town of Maan. Syrian government forces seized Maan in 2014, after Islamist fighters killed at least 25 members of the Alawite sect to which President Bashar al-Assad belongs.
Hama province is of strategic importance to Assad's government, separating opposition forces in Idlib from Damascus to the south and the regime's coastal heartlands to the west. The offensive is being spearheaded by the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which is dominated by jihadist Fateh al-Sham Front, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
In addition to 11 villages and towns, rebels and jihadists have captured several government checkpoints and part of the road between provincial capital Hama and the town of Mhardeh, the Observatory said. The monitor said the opposition forces were now around four kilometres (2.5 miles) from government-held Hama city.
An AFP correspondent in northern Hama said government warplanes were circling overhead and carrying out strikes on areas captured during the offensive. He said the sound of fighting could be heard even at a distance, and small groups of people could be seen fleeing the violence, most of them travelling in cars. Aid group Save the Children said Wednesday at least 10,000 people had fled their homes in the Hama area in the past 24 hours.
The violence comes as UN-brokered peace talks are set to resume in Switzerland between government officials and opposition representatives. More than 320,000 people have been killed and millions more displaced by Syria's conflict since it began in March 2011.