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Syria regime, rebels battle for highway town: monitor

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Beirut (AFP)

Syrian regime forces were locked in clashes with jihadists and allied rebels in a key highway town in northwest Syria Thursday, a monitor said, despite Turkey warning pro-government fighters to back off.

Ankara sent in reinforcements north of the town of Saraqeb overnight after Wednesday's warnings, prompting Syria's army to accuse Turkey of seeking to hamper its military operation.

In recent months, Russia-backed regime forces have upped their deadly bombardment on Idlib in northwestern Syria, chipping away at the southern edge of the jihadist-dominated region.

On Wednesday, they broke into Saraqeb, which lies at the crossroads of two key highways criss-crossing Idlib province, the last major rebel bastion in Syria.

"Fighting is ongoing in the south of the town of Saraqeb," the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

There were also clashes to the north, west and south of the town, backed by Turkish artillery fire, the Britain-based monitor said. Ankara did not confirm its involvement.

Early Thursday, Turkish troops arrived in the area of Taftanaz, some 16 kilometres (10 miles) north, it said.

The Syrian army in a statement accused the Turks of obstructing its advance and "impeding it from completely stamping out the organised terrorism besieging civilians in Idlib province".

The comments came a day after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey would "take matters into its own hands" if the regime did not pull back.

Tension mounted after Turkish and regime forces on Monday exchanged deadly fire in a rare escalation that killed more than 20 people on both sides.

The uptick in bombardment of the region of some three million people has killed more than 300 civilians since mid-December, including six on Thursday, the Observatory said.

The United Nations and aid groups have called for an immediate end to the violence, which has pushed more than 500,000 people from their homes in two months.

The European Union on Thursday also called for an end to the bombings in northwest Syria and the opening of a humanitarian corridor.

The United States late Wednesday offered help to Turkey and threatened sanctions to press Syria and its ally Russia to halt the offensive.

Syria's war has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

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