Syrian regime forces on Tuesday (January 28th) recaptured most of Maaret al-Numan, a semi-deserted town of symbolic and strategic importance in Syria's last major opposition-held bastion, state media and a war monitor said.
"The Syrian army has retaken most neighbourhoods in Maaret al-Numan" and are now combing recaptured areas, said state news agency SANA.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that most opposition fighters and extremists had pulled out after regime forces stormed the town from multiple fronts earlier in the day.
It said regime forces were left battling the few fighters that remained holed up in the area, which has been under opposition control since 2012.
Maaret al-Numan, which is nearly deserted after months of bombardment, lies on the M5 highway linking Damascus to Syria's second city, Aleppo.
Its recapture would bring the regime a step closer to taking full control of the wider opposition-run bastion of Idlib and the M5 highway that runs through it.
Heavy fighting in south-west Idlib
Regime forces and allied militias have since Friday seized more than 25 towns and villages around Maaret al-Numan, fully encircling it, the Observatory said.
They were able to advance Monday towards villages and towns in southern and eastern rural Idlib, after Russian and Syrian warplanes paved the way with dozens of airstrikes, a local activist told Diyaruna.
Idlib activist Musab Assaf said regime forces and allied militias "were able to make modest advances in southern rural Idlib following the withdrawal of Tahrir al-Sham and allied militia elements from the battlefronts".
Towns that fell to the regime include Maar Shurin, Maar Shamsha, Talmenes, al-Ghadafeh and al-Deir al-Sharqi, in addition to Babuline, Sahyan, Kafr Basin, al-Salhiyeh, Bseideh and Maar Hattat in southern rural Idlib, he said.
Several medical posts and hospitals were directly hit and knocked out of service, he said, adding that one Syrian Civil Defence (White Helmets) rescuer was killed and several others injured in the airstrikes.
"Al-Iman hospital in the town of Sarjah was totally destroyed, and so was a temporary first aid centre in the town of Maarat al-Artik in northern rural Aleppo and another in the town of Talmenes," Assaf said.
Vehicles used as ambulances to transport the wounded also were destroyed in the airstrikes, he added.
Bombing targets civilians
According to Syrian Civil Defence figures, Assaf said, over the last 10 days, 95 civilians, including 32 children and one civil defence volunteer were killed in the fighting.
About 200 other civilians were wounded, among them a large number of children and women, he said.
In areas north of Maaret al-Numan, bombardment by Russia has prompted a fresh wave of displacement in recent days, with hundreds of vehicles packing a key exit route towards areas near the border with Turkey.
Most were fleeing the town of Saraqib and the Jabal al-Zawiya region.
Russia has bombed areas around the main exit routes, despite the heavy outflow of civilians, according to the Observatory.
Misty Buswell of the International Rescue Committee warned that the latest escalation "will only add to the humanitarian catastrophe that is already unfolding".