Syrian troops expand offensive despite calls for calm

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government forces expanded their ground offensive in northwestern Syria, pushing Saturday into the last rebel stronghold and regaining control of a number of villages along its southern corner, activists and media said, despite calls for honoring a cease-fire put in place in September.

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The pro-government Military Media Center said that troops battled insurgent led by an al-Qaida-linked militant group out of Midan Ghazal village, which falls inside Idlib province. The government ground offensive has so far focused on areas at the southern edge of the rebel stronghold, in the Ghab plains and Hama province.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed troops gained new ground, but said all were in Hama province.

The Observatory said government forces are now in control of nine villages forming an L shape at the far southern corner of the rebel stronghold. The villages include the strategic village of Kfar Nabuda and the elevated Qalaat Madiq, giving the government troops advantage over the insurgents.

The insurgents launched a failed counteroffensive Friday, aiming to regain control of Kfar Nabudah. On Saturday, Al-Ikhbariya state TV broadcast from inside Kfar Nabudah to confirm the government forces have it under control.

An unnamed Syrian army officer told the station the insurgents' counteroffensive included car bombs and suicide attacks.

Al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham said it continued to launch missiles at the village and was fighting government troops elsewhere. Airstrikes on villages and towns inside Idlib continued.

Fighting in the area, which began on April 30, has been the worst breach of a September cease-fire brokered by Russia and Turkey.

Members of the U.N. Security Council urged a return to calm.

"We urge all parties to uphold international humanitarian law and protect civilian," a statement by 11 members of the council said. Russia, China, South Africa and Indonesia didn't support the statement.

Over 150,000 people have been displaced by the latest wave of violence inside the enclave , which is home to 3 million people and spans most of Idlib province and part of Hama in the country's northwest corner. The World Food Program said the fighting forced it to suspend aid distribution to over 47,000 people.