BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces captured five villages in the country's northwest early Wednesday, inching closer to a major rebel-controlled town that was the scene of a deadly 2017 chemical weapons attack and forcing thousands to flee their homes to a safer area farther north, opposition activists and state media reported.
Opposition activists also reported that a Syrian warplane was shot down by rebels in the area, adding that the fate of the pilot was not immediately clear. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said the warplane was shot down on the southern edge of Idlib province. Activist Taher al-Omar, who has close links with militants, said it was a Russian-made SU-22.
The Ibaa news agency, the media arm of the main al-Qaida-linked group in northwestern Syria, posted photos of what it said was the warplane, which appeared charred and destroyed. Pro-government media websites said the cause of the crash was a technical problem.
The capture of the five villages — Tel Aas, Khirbet Morshed, Kfar Eyn, Um Zeitoun and Mantar — puts Syrian troops about 5 kilometers (3 miles) west of Khan Sheikhoun, one of the largest and most populated towns on the southern edge of idlib province, which is the last remaining rebel stronghold in the country.
Khan Sheikhoun is a stronghold of al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful group in the rebel-held areas. The town was the scene of a chemical attack on April 4, 2017 that killed 89 people.
At the time, the United States, Britain and France pointed a finger at the Syrian government, saying their experts had found that nerve agents were used in the attack. Days later, the U.S. fired 59 U.S. Tomahawk missiles at the Shayrat Air Base in central Syria, saying the attack on Khan Sheikhoun was launched from the base.
Syrian troops have been on the offensive against rebel strongholds in the north of Hama province and the southern districts of Idlib since April 30.
The three-month campaign of airstrikes and shelling has killed more than 2,000 people on both sides and displaced some 400,000. In recent days, troops have intensified their offensive, capturing the town of Habeet on Sunday.
The aim of the latest government push appears to be to surround several towns and villages in rebel-held Hama, including the towns of Kfar Zeita and Latamneh, as well as to reach Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said pro-government fighters took the five villages Wednesday after fierce fighting with al-Qaida-linked militants. Troops were continuing to advance toward checkpoints at the western entrance of Khan Sheikhoun, it said.
"The operation aims to expand the regime-controlled area in northern parts of Hama and cut supply lines to rebels," Yazan Mohammed, a media activist based in Idlib province, told The Associated Press.
Many residents of Khan Sheikhoun and nearby villages were fleeing toward safer areas farther north in Idlib, he added.
The Syrian Response Coordination Group, a relief group active in northwestern Syria, said in a statement Wednesday that more than 40,000 people have fled their homes in areas close to the fighting since early Tuesday. It said many of those who fled are staying on roads or in open-air areas and called on local authorities to open public schools to host the displaced.
Sheikh Sami Rahmoun, a commander of the al-Qaida-linked group, released an audio recording late Tuesday acknowledging his fighters have lost territory.
"Don't worry if we lose an area or two," he claimed. "We will be victorious."