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Clashes in a strategic city in northern Syria after the Turkish strikes | New





By Orhan Coskun and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA / AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian government forces fought to recapture a rebel-held strategic town in Idlib province on Monday and a Turkish official said that Ankara would continue to hit President's troops Bashar al-Assad after the intensification of his military operations this weekend.

Syrian public television broadcast live footage of the interior of Saraqeb, which sits on the country's main north-south highway, and said it was under government control. The rebels denied the report, claiming that they still detained the city despite the heavy bombing.

Saraqeb has already changed hands twice in less than a month, reflecting its importance both as a gateway to the government-controlled city of Aleppo to the north and to West, the city of Idlib, held by the rebels.

The rebels said Turkish drones had hit Syrian army positions on the Saraqeb front line, hitting at least two rocket launchers.

Turkey, which supported rebels fighting Assad for much of the nine-year conflict in Syria, has stepped up intervention in recent days in response to the murder of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib.

On Sunday, he shot down two Syrian planes in Idlib and struck at least one military airport in Aleppo province, plunging the battle deep into territory controlled by forces loyal to Assad.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces also destroyed eight helicopters, dozens of tanks and five air defense systems.

"All the (Syrian) attacks have been fought back by the Turkish armed forces in the heaviest and without hesitation and will continue to be," said state news agency Anadolu.

President Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, whose support for Assad turned the tide of the war five years ago, are expected to meet on Thursday in Russia to seek an agreement on Idlib.

Turkey has insisted on seeking no conflict with Moscow, but its barrage of strikes against Russian-backed forces around Idlib has increased the risk of direct confrontation.

"A solution should emerge from the talks, but the attacks and attempts by the (Syrian) regime during this period will not go unanswered," a senior Turkish security official told Reuters.

Backed by Turkish bombing and drone strikes, the rebels say they have now taken back several villages they lost last week during the Syrian government's offensive.

Erdogan demanded in early February that Syrian forces withdraw by the end of the month from a "de-escalation zone" agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran around Idlib in 2017, or are at risk of being pushed back by the Turkish army.

"The (Syrian) regime will be forced to leave the de-escalation zone before the Putin-Erdogan meeting," said an opposition source.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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