Clashes in northwest Syria kill 55

The regime also launched dozens of air strikes against northern Hama and southern Idlib

This picture taken on August 5, 2019 shows smoke billowing above buildings during a reported air strike by pro-regime forces on Khan Sheikhun in the south of the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. Damascus and Russia resumed air strikes on Idlib in northwest Syria on August 5, a monitor said, scrapping a ceasefire for the jihadist-run bastion and accusing the regime's opponents of targeting a Russian air base. The northwestern region, which hosts some three million people, is one of the last major centres of resistance to President Bashar al-Assad's regime after eight years of war. / AFP / Omar HAJ KADOUR
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Clashes between regime loyalists and insurgents in northwest Syria killed 55 combatants on Saturday, as government forces continued to nibble away at territory held by its opponents, a war monitor said.

Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, an extremist group led by Syria's former Al Qaeda affiliate, has since January controlled most of Idlib province as well as parts of neighbouring Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces.

Several other armed rebel groups also operate in the area.

Fighting in various parts of the region on Saturday claimed the lives of 23 pro-government forces as well as 32 rebels, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The regime also launched dozens of air strikes against northern Hama and southern Idlib, the Britain-based monitor added.

The latest violence came as forces loyal to Damascus pushed a days-long advance towards a strip straddling the provinces of Hama and Idlib, it said.

They aim to capture Kafr Zita – one of the largest towns in northern Hama – and the nearby village of Al Latamneh from militants and rebels, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Both lie on the southern edge of the militant-run bastion of Idlib, one of the last centres of opposition to President Bashar Al Assad after eight years of civil war.

Regime forces have closed in Kfar Zeita and Latamneh over the past week, after capturing a string of nearby towns and villages, the Observatory said.

They are also trying to surround the nearby town of Khan Sheikoun in order to wrest it, Mr Abdel Rahman said.

The latest advances come after the Syrian government on Monday scrapped a brief three-day ceasefire for the Idlib region, accusing its opponents of refusing to abide by the truce.

The region was supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by a Turkish-Russian buffer-zone deal that was reached in September last year.

But it has come under increasing bombardment by Damascus and its backer Moscow since the end of April that has killed, according to the Observatory, more than 800 civilians.

Nearly 80 people have lost their lives in retaliatory fire on regime-held territory in that same period, it said.

The violence has also pushed 400,000 people from their homes, according to the United Nations.

Syria's conflict has killed a total of more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since it started with the brutal repression of anti-government protests in 2011.

In the last few days, Syria freed a Canadian man after being held for eight months by the Damascus authorities – Columbia native Kristian Lee Baxter on Friday appeared at a televised press conference in Lebanon's capital Beirut after his release mediated by the Lebanese authorities.

"I thought I would be there forever," he said, after breaking down in tears.

"Honestly, I didn't know if anyone would know I was alive," he said, his grey hair trimmed short and wearing a grey T-shirt.

Canadian media reported in early January that there had been no signs of Baxter, then 44, since December 1, 2018.

Mr Baxter thanked his embassy in Beirut and Lebanese authorities for helping secure his release.