Syria: Troops Control Northern Hama

Syria: Troops Control Northern Hama

BEIRUT (AP) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad's troops seized control of a string of villages in the northern countryside of Hama province, completing their takeover of the formerly rebel-held region just south of Idlib province for the first time since 2012, Syrian state TV and a war monitoring group said Friday.

The TV said troops seized the villages of Latamneh, Latmeen, Kfar Zeita and Lahaya, as well as the village of Morek, where Turkey maintains an observation post, on Friday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also reported Friday that government troops were in control of the entire northern Hama countryside after capturing a series of towns of villages.

The fate of Turkish troops manning the observation post wasn't immediately clear. Since a deal with Russia last year, Turkey has maintained 12 such posts in and around Idlib province. Turkey is a strong backer of the Syrian opposition and rebels fighting Assad's forces.

The Observatory said it was not clear whether there were any Turkish soldiers remaining in the Morek observation post or whether they had withdrawn from the area overnight.

Syrian troops, backed by Russian air cover, had laid siege to rebel-held villages in the central province of Hama earlier this week, following rapid advances.

Idlib, near the Turkish border, is the last major rebel-controlled province in Syria. Insurgents there have suffered a series of setbacks over the past three weeks in the face of a stepped-up government offensive in the country's northwest.

On Wednesday, government forces took control of the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province after an al-Qaida-linked group pulled out. They then launched the siege on rebel-held towns and villages in the northern province, adjoining Hama.

Syrian government forces have been on the offensive in Idlib and northern parts of Hama province since April 30, forcing nearly half a million people to flee to safer areas further north. The fighting also killed more than 2,000 people, including hundreds of civilians.