Syrian rebel fighters. File photo
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Islamist groups including al Qaeda’s Nusra Front have seized major parts of Syria’s city of Idlib for the first time since the conflict in the country began, fighters and a monitoring group said on Saturday.
Syrian state television said the army was engaged in fierce fighting and have managed to halt the insurgents advances on the northern, eastern and southern sides of the city.
“The army is fighting fierce battles to restore the situation back to what it was,” it said.
Idlib, a city of 100,000 people, is close to the main strategic highway linking Damascus to Aleppo and is also close to the coastal province of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
“They have entered the city from several sides but the major push was from the northern and western sides,” said Rami Abdelrahman from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group which monitors the conflict.
If the insurgents seize Idlib, the capital of a northwestern province of the same name, the province would be the second after Raqqa to be fully under the control of rebels. Raqqa is a stronghold of the Islamic State group and has been a target of U.S.-led air strikes.
“The armed forces are pounding terrorist gatherings who have infiltrated the area of the national museum and sides of the industrial area on the eastern entrance of the city,” state news agency SANA said. It added that the army had killed hundreds of the fighters.
A video posted on the Internet by Nusra Front shows dozens of fighters in the streets of what a voice says was Idlib city.
“This is my house, for four years I have not entered it, this is my neighbourhood, this is our country and by God’s will we will liberate and inhabit Muslims in it,” a fighter said in the video.
He was welcomed by several men, some in civilian clothes, others hugged him and cried.
Islamist groups have formed an alliance which also included the hardline Ahrar al-Sham movement and Jund al-Aqsa. They launched the offensive to take the city on Tuesday.
The grouping have called the operation Army of Fatah, a reference to the Muslim conquests that spread the faith through the Middle East starting in the seventh century.