Russian and regime bombardment in northwestern Syria's Idlib, the last major opposition enclave, has killed 29 civilians in a day, a monitor said Monday, as the regime's inexorable northward push raises tensions with Turkey.
Six children were among nine civilians killed early Monday in raids on the village of Abin Semaan, in Aleppo province where Russian-backed regime forces have been waging a fierce offensive to retake a key highway, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The most recent attack came after at least 20 civilians were killed on Sunday as Syrian regime forces were poised to retake a key motorway connecting the capital Damascus to the second-largest city, Aleppo, after weeks of battles in the opposition-held Idlib region, the monitor said.
The regime and its Russian ally have been engaged in a fierce weekslong offensive to take back the vital M5 artery which connects Aleppo, once Syria's economic hub, to Damascus and the Jordanian border.
A section of the highway southwest of Aleppo city still lies under the control of opposition fighters who control a shrinking, densely populated territory centered on neighboring Idlib province.
Pro-regime forces have been chipping away at the area in an assault that has sent half a million people fleeing north toward the Turkish border.
Deadly raids on Sunday by regime ally Russia left 14 people dead, including nine in the village of Kar Nuran in southwestern Aleppo province, near the last stretch of the M5 still in opposition hands, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Syrian air raids with crude barrel bombs also killed four civilians in the Atareb district east of Aleppo, while another died in artillery fire near the city of Jisr Al-Shughur, it said.
The last civilian was killed in regime airstrikes on Ketian village in southern Idlib.
Recapturing the M5 would allow traffic to resume between war-torn Syria's main business hubs, helping the regime revive a moribund economy after nearly nine years of war.
After weeks of steady regime advances in Syria's northwest, only a 2-kilometer section of the M5 remains outside Assad regime control, according to the Observatory.
Pro-Assad forces were closing in Sunday on the last segment southwest of Aleppo, neighboring Idlib, the Britain-based war monitor said.
"Regime forces have gained new ground and now control several villages near the motorway," Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP.
Fighting was ongoing in the area early Sunday evening with bombing intensifying, he said.
Half a million displaced
Since December, Russian-backed Assad forces have pressed a blistering assault against Idlib, Syria's last major opposition bastion, retaking town after town.
The violence has killed more than 300 civilians and sent some 586,000 fleeing toward relative safety nearer the Turkish border.
Some 3 million people are now trapped in the Idlib region, around half of whom have already fled other parts of the country.
The Syrian army said in a statement Sunday it had recaptured 600 square kilometers (232 square miles) in recent days, comprising "dozens of villages and locations" in south Idlib and west Aleppo provinces.
The Assad regime on Sunday approved a plan aimed at "progressively re-establishing services in liberated areas," official news agency SANA reported.
That came a day after the army captured the Idlib town of Saraqeb, located on a junction of the M5, state media said.
Troops then pressed north along the motorway past Idlib's provincial borders and linked up with a unit of Syrian soldiers in Aleppo province, according to the Observatory and state agency SANA.
It was the first time in weeks the two units joined up after waging separate offensives against opposition fighters in Idlib and Aleppo.
A little more than half of Idlib province remains in opposition hands, along with slivers of neighboring Aleppo and Latakia provinces.
Some 50,000 fighters are in the shrinking pocket, according to the Observatory.
The United Nations and aid groups have appealed for an end to hostilities in the Idlib region, warning that the exodus risks creating one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the nearly nine-year war.