TALLMANNIS: Members of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the 'White Helmets', carry away in a blanket the body of a victim following a reported air strike on a makeshift clinic in the area of Tallmannis in Syria's northern Idlib province yesterday. - AFP

AMMAN: Ten of
thousands of people have fled to the Turkish border in the last few days as the
Syrian army pushed a major advance further into the opposition's last major
stronghold, residents, rights groups and opposition sources said yesterday.
They left Maarat al-Numan, a main city in Idlib province that has been a
sanctuary for families fleeing former rebel areas, as a Russian-led campaign
has come close to capturing the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun further to the
south. "The flow of cars and vehicles leaving is not stopping," said
Abdullah Younis from the city. Rescuers there said around 60,000 people had
fled in the last four days alone.

On Tuesday, Russian and Syrian jets intensified their bombing of scattered
villages and towns around Maarat al-Numan, with the al-Rahma hospital in the
area struck, residents said. "There were 15 raids on Jarjanaz in less than
five minutes," Abdul Rahman al Halabi told Reuters from the area. Rebels
concede most of their fighters have fled Khan Sheikhoun but are providing
fierce resistance to the Syrian army, which has secured a foothold in the town.

State media, broadcasting from the outskirts of Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday, said
government forces were battling militants but had extended their advance and
seized a highway running through the town. Capturing Khan Sheikhoun would be an
important gain for Moscow and its ally into the northwestern region, where
Moscow has helped President Bashar al Assad turn the tide against insurgents in
the eight year conflict since stepping up its intervention in 2015.

Russia has thrown its weight behind the campaign, which began in earnest at the
end of April, conducting thousands of raids and strikes on rebel-held northern
Hama and southern Idlib in what Western military experts and opposition figures
say is a "scorched earth strategy". Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov
acknowledged on Tuesday that Russia had military personnel on the ground in
Idlib province, the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

The Russian military has previously downplayed its direct role in the campaign,
where it used mercenaries and special forces as well as directing battles,
according to Western intelligence sources. After months of stalemate Russia has
increased the intensity of raids in the last 10 days, dramatically transforming
the situation on the ground. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and at
least 400,000 people displaced, according to medics and NGOs and the United
Nations. Moscow and Damascus, who deny indiscriminate bombing of civilians
areas, say they are fighting jihadist militants.- Reuters