More than 100 fighters killed in rebel counterattack near Syria's Idlib

At least 53 government loyalists as well as 48 opposition and Islamist fighters die in clashes

TOPSHOT - Plumes of smoke rise following reported Syrian government forces' bombardment on the town of Khan Sheikhun in the southern countryside of the jihadist-held Idlib province, on June 7, 2019. Fierce clashes between government forces and jihadists have left 83 combatants dead in northwestern Syria in the past 24 hours, a Britain-based war monitor said on June 7. / AFP / Anas AL-dyab
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More than 100 fighters were killed in the last 48 hours as fierce clashes rage between Russian-backed government forces and hardline militant groups in north-western Syria.

At least 53 government loyalists along with 48 opposition and Islamist fighters died in fighting on the edge of the militant-controlled Idlib region since Thursday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The region of about three million civilians – almost half of them displaced from other parts of the country – is dominated by the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham alliance led by Al Qaeda's former Syrian affiliate.

The alliance administers a region that spans most of Idlib province as well as slivers of the neighbouring Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces.

Idlib experienced a spike in bombardment since late April, with regime forces seizing several towns on the region's south-western flank.

Late on Thursday, the militants and allied rebels launched a counterattack against regime forces in north-western Hama.

TOPSHOT - Members of the Syrian Civil Defence (known as the White Helmets) carry a wounded man on a stretcher following a reported air strike on the town of Maaret al-Numan in the jihadist-held Idlib province on June 3, 2019.  / AFP / Abdulaziz KETAZ

They have since seized the villages of Tal Maleh and Jibeen amid heavy clashes and airstrikes by regime and Russian forces, the Observatory said.

The area saw "the fiercest fighting since the start of the escalation in late April," Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

The fighting is raging near Christian and Alawite areas under regime control, he said.

State news agency Sana said army units in northern Hama "responded with force to attacking terrorist groups... and took back a number of positions".

In Idlib, two children were killed overnight – one by regime rocket fire in the village of Frike and another in an air strike on the town of Khan Sheikhun, the Observatory said.

The fighters who took part in the counterattack include some from the Al Qaeda-linked Hurras Al Deen and Turkistan Islamic Party.

Idlib is supposed to be protected from a massive government offensive by a September buffer-zone deal signed between regime ally Russia and rebel backer Turkey.

But it was never fully implemented, as militants refused to withdraw from the proposed demilitarised zone.

The government and Russia have upped their bombardment of the region since late April, killing more than 300 civilians, according to the Observatory.

The UN says more than 270,000 people have fled their homes.

Twenty-four health facilities and 35 schools were hit in the latest escalation, according to the UN's humanitarian office.

Analysts predict that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and his allies will continue to chip away at the area, but not unleash a major assault that would create chaos on Turkey's doorstep.

Eight years into Syria's civil war, two regions largely remain beyond regime control: a large north-eastern section held by the country's Kurds, and Idlib.

The war, which started in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government demonstrations, has lead to more than 370,000 deaths and has displaced millions.