Syria government forces enter town east of Idlib city - eyewitnesses, war monitor

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BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syrian government forces entered Saraqeb in northwestern Idlib province, a war monitor and eye witnesses said on Wednesday, in a renewed push by President Bashar al-Assad to recapture the last rebel stronghold.

Government forces were combing the town after rebel fighters fled following intense aerial and ground bombardment of Saraqeb, 15 km (9 miles) east of Idlib city, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website.

Eye witnesses told Reuters that rebel fighters had left and that government forces were in control of the town, which lies at the junction of two main roads that Damascus seeks to fully control.

Syrian state TV said on Wednesday that the roads were now within firing range of government forces.

Assad's campaign to regain Idlib province, the last rebel bastion in a nearly nine-year-long civil war, has sparked a new exodus of thousands of civilians towards the border with Turkey, which backs some insurgent groups fighting Assad.

The renewed fighting is taking place despite a Jan. 12 ceasefire deal between Turkey and Russia, which back opposing sides of the conflict. Shelling by Syrian government forces killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday, prompting Turkish forces to strike back.

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Wednesday to drive back Syrian troops in Idlib unless they withdraw by the end of the month to stem an assault which he said had displaced nearly 1 million people.

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Syria and Ghaida Ghantous in Beirut; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Chris Reese, William Maclean)

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