Syrian regime retakes symbolic town of Kafranbel: monitor

A man rides a motorbike through the almost-deserted town of Kafranbel on February 15, just days before its capture by the regime

Syrian regime forces recaptured Kafranbel in Idlib province on Tuesday, a war monitor said, a symbolic victory in a town that was among the first to rebel against Damascus.

Supported by Russian air strikes, pro-regime forces advancing on the last major rebel-held bastion in northwest Syria captured Kafranbel and 18 nearby towns and villages over the past 48 hours, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Earlier on Thursday, the Observatory said regime air strikes and artillery fire had killed 19 civilians in Idlib, in towns north of Kafranbel.

From the first days of the peaceful uprising against the rule of President Bashar Al-Assad in 2011, Kafranbel gained worldwide renown as a bastion of protest.

In 2012, it was rocked by fighting between regime fighters and defectors from Assad's army, soon slipping out of the government's control.

A town of some 20,000 people, it became known for the often humorous signs in English and Arabic that its residents held up at weekly demonstrations.

"Down with the regime -- and the opposition," a sign at one of the town's protests read in 2011.

Activists from Kafranbel became famous for speaking out against Damascus as well as criticising jihadists and the radicalisation of the uprising against Assad.

Prominent activists Raed Fares and Hamod Jnaid were killed by unknown gunmen in the town in November 2018.

In recent weeks, Damascus has pressed a major offensive against the remaining territory still held by jihadists and Turkish-backed rebels, which has shrunk to an area roughly the size of Majorca.

The area hosts more than three million people -- half of them already displaced by violence elsewhere.

The offensive has killed more than 400 civilians, according to the Observatory, and displaced close to a million people amid bitter cold.

Syria's war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.