Syrian opposition fighters have withdrawn from a key town in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, northwest of the country, local activists and a war monitor have said.
“Khan Shaikhoun has become completely surrounded by government forces and rebel fighters withdrew early on Tuesday,” Suleiman Abdulqader, a local activist in southern Idlib, told Al Jazeera.
“They moved towards the north and east for now in an attempt to prevent troops from advancing to new points,” he said.
The withdrawal from Khan Shaikhoun, one of the province’s largest towns, comes days after fierce fighting between armed rebel factions and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Backed by Russia militarily, government forces surrounded the town on Monday as clashes continued in and around the area for a third consecutive day.
The town had been in rebel hands since 2014.
Local activist Ahmed Husseinat said the fighters who withdrew were from the rebel faction Jaish al-Izza and from the Turkish-backed al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front, NLF) – a loose coalition of armed groups that are considered part of the moderate opposition.
But a statement on Tuesday from the main faction in the area, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, described the withdrawal as “a redeployment” and said that its fighters withdrew to the southern part of Khan Sheikhoun from where they would continue to defend their territory.
Reports from activists also note that fighters have withdrawn from a string of towns and villages in northern Hama, a city bordering Idlib from the south.
Turkish convoy ‘stuck’
On Monday, air raids struck a Turkish military convoy making its way through Idlib, the Turkish Defence Ministry said, adding that the convoy was heading to one of its observation posts in Morek in northwest Syria.
At least three civilians were killed in the strikes, Turkey’s defence ministry said.
Ankara backs some of the rebels in northwest Syria and has deployed forces in the Idlib region under deals with Moscow.
Activists also said the Turkish convoy remains on the Damascus-Aleppo highway near the town of Maarat al-Numan, where it was targeted by warplanes. It was not immediately clear whether the Syrian government or Russian fighter jets had struck near the convoy.
“The Turkish convoy is still stuck north of Khan Sheikhoun,” Suleiman said. “It has not been able to move since yesterday’s attacks,” Ahmed Sheikho, a local activist and member of the Syrian Civil Defence, told Al Jazeera.
Later on Tuesday, Turkey said it would not be moving its observation post in Morek, warning Syria not to “play with fire”.
“Right now we don’t have an intention such as moving this elsewhere,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “It will carry on with its mission.”
The convoy had been sent to keep open supply routes, ensure the safety of the observation post and protect civilians in the region, the defence ministry said.
The post is one of 12 observation points set up across opposition-held territories in Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama provinces that were established after a “de-escalation” agreement was reached between Turkey, Russia, and Iran in July 2017.
“We will do whatever is necessary for the security of our own soldiers and observation posts,” Cavusoglu added.
After a short-lived ceasefire, the area has seen intense bombardment in recent days, as the Syrian army gained ground against the weakened rebels.
Idlib is home to three million people, half of whom are internally displaced after being transferred en masse to the province from other areas that fell to pro-government forces.
Many of those who resided in and around Khan Shaikhoun have amassed near the Turkey-Syria border, fleeing bombardment.
According to the United Nations, more than 500 civilians have been killed, while hundreds more have been wounded since the start of the offensive.
Meanwhile, some 400,000 people have been forced to leave their homes.
“There are virtually no civilians in the area,” Sheikho said. “Many want to return to their homes, but they’re forced to wait all the way near the border for now.”