Syrian opposition fighters have withdrawn from a key town in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, northwest of the country, local activists and a war monitor have said.
“Khan Shaikhoun has become completely surrounded by government forces and rebel fighters withdrew early on Tuesday,” Suleiman Abdulqader, a local activist in southern Idlib, told Al Jazeera.
“They moved towards the north and east for now in an attempt to prevent army troops from advancing to new points,” he said.
The withdrawal from Khan Shaikhoun, one of the province’s largest towns, comes days after fierce fighting between armed rebel factions and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Backed by Russia militarily, government forces surrounded the town on Monday as clashes continued in and around the area for a third consecutive day.
Local activist Ahmed Husseinat said fighters who withdrew were from the rebel faction Jaish al-Izza and from the Turkish-backed al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (the National Liberation Front, NLF) – a loose coalition of armed groups that are considered part of the moderate opposition.
But a statement on Tuesday from the main faction in the area, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, a former al-Qaeda affiliate, described the withdrawal as “a redeployment” and said that its fighters withdrew to the southern part of Khan Sheikhoun from where they would continue to defend their territory.
Reports from activists also note that fighters have withdrawn from a string of towns and villages in northern Hama, a city bordering Idlib from the south.
On Monday, air raids struck a Turkish military convoy making its way through Idlib, the Turkish defence ministry said, adding that the convoy was heading to one of its observation posts in Morek in northwest Syria.
The Syrian government said it had entered the country carrying ammunition to help opposition fighters who have lost ground amid the Russian-backed military push that began in late April to retake the country’s last rebel-held area.