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Dec 16, 12:35 PM EST

Syrian troops march into rebel-held province of Idlib


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BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian government forces entered Saturday small parts of the northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib in one of their deepest incursions into the area where President Bashar Assad's government has almost no presence.

Syrian government forces and their allies have been on the offensive toward Idlib from the central province of Hama for weeks, capturing villages from militants led by al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee. They broke through recently before being pushed back by insurgents.

The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said Syrian troops captured Saturday the village of Tal al-Khanazeer on the southeastern edge of Idlib.

The opposition's Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tal al-Khanazeer was captured after intense fighting and airstrikes.

The Levant Liberation Committee that controls large parts of Idlib issued a religious edict Friday calling for general mobilization to "deter the savage attack of the criminal" government. The edict is an indication of the crushing government offensive toward Idlib, a region that is part of a de-escalation zone agreed on by Turkey, Iran and Russia earlier this year.

Militants control all parts of Idlib except for two villages that have been besieged by insurgents for years. If the government succeeds in pushing deeper into the province it would be a turning point in the conflict, at a time when Assad's forces have been making steady gains since Russia joined the war in September 2015 and turned it in the government's favor.

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