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story.lead_photo.caption A Turkey Armed Forces convoy is seen at a highway between Maaret al-Numan and Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, Syria, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019. The Turkish Defense Ministry says airstrikes have targeted a Turkish military convoy in Syria, killing at least three civilians and wounding 12 others in Monday's attack that occurred while the convoy was heading toward a Turkish observation post in the rebel-held stronghold of Idlib. (Murat Kibritoglu/DHA via AP)

BEIRUT (AP) — The main insurgent group in the Syrian province of Idlib pulled out of a key rebel town as government forces advanced in the area on Tuesday amid intense bombardment and airstrikes, a militant group and opposition activists said.

As the militants withdrew, government troops moved into northern and western neighborhoods of Khan Sheikhoun, marking a significant gain for President Bashar Assad’s forces as they try to chip away at territory controlled by the opposition in Idlib. The northwestern province, dominated by an al-Qaida-linked faction, is the last major rebel-held bastion in Syria.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria’s main al-Qaida-linked faction, said in a statement that its fighters carried out “a re-deployment,” withdrawing to areas south of the town of Khan Sheikhoun. From there, they would continue to defend the territory, it said.

Syrian state TV said government troops have expanded their presence in the Khan Sheikhoun area, without giving further details.

“The victories that were achieved show the determination of the people and the army to strike terrorists, until all parts of Syria are liberated,” Assad said, according to comments released by his office.

The withdrawal is a blow to the opposition. 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.

After months of intense bombardment, the insurgents’ defenses appear to be crumbling as they are now losing ground at a much faster pace compared with the first three months of the government push.

In the long-running Syrian civil war, now in its ninth year, the northwestern region — where Turkish, Russian, U.S. and Iranian interests are at stake — has taken center stage in the conflict.

The latest government gains come as NATO allies Turkey and the U.S. are discussing setting up a buffer inside Syria — one that Ankara wants to push Syrian Kurdish fighters it considers terrorists further to the east.

There has been speculation, meanwhile, that Russia and Turkey, which back rival sides in Syria’s conflict, have reached an agreement that would allow the Syrian army to retake parts of Idlib and reopen a highway that links the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest.

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