Beirut (AFP)

The forces of the Syrian regime on Thursday resumed several villages in Idleb, a province of northern Syria dominated by jihadists, and are approaching the key city of Khan Cheikhoun they want to encircle, according to an NGO.

Most of Idleb province and segments of neighboring Aleppo, Hama and Latakia still escape the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, eight years after the start of the war.

This area, dominated by the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS, former Syrian branch of al-Qaeda) but which is also home to some rebel groups, has been targeted since the end of April for almost daily bombardments by the regime and its ally. Russian.

For several days, pro-regime forces have advanced at the expense of jihadists and rebels.

They are now three kilometers northwest of the strategic city of Khan Sheikhoun after taking control Thursday of five surrounding villages, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH).

Khan Cheikhoun is on the highway that runs through Idleb and connects the capital Damascus to the metropolis of Aleppo (north), both under government control.

"The goal is to encircle Khan Cheikhoun and reach the highway," said OSDH director Rami Abdel Rahman.

The fighting is fierce, however. On Wednesday, a Syrian army plane flying over an area east of Khan Cheikhoun was shot dead by jihadists and its captured pilot, a first since the start of the military escalation in the region, according to the OSDH . HTS claimed the attack.

On Thursday, the jihadist group posted on its website a video showing a man, presented as the pilot, who claims to be called Mohammad Ahmad Sleiman and a lieutenant of the Syrian Air Force.

- "The horror" -

Since the night of Wednesday to Thursday, fighting has killed 24 jihadists and rebels and 20 pro-regime fighters.

More than 1,300 jihadist and rebel fighters and more than 1,150 pro-regime forces have died in clashes since the end of April, according to the OSDH.

On the side of the civilians, no death was deplored Thursday.

The day before, nine civilians had been killed in Russian and Syrian raids on several localities and villages in southern Idleb, including Maaret Hourma and its surroundings.

A White Helmets rescuer along with an ambulance driver and a nurse from the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), were killed in Russian attacks, prompting UN condemnation.

"Wednesday's attack again reveals the horror (...) in Idleb and northern Hama, where three million civilians remain trapped and humanitarian workers (...) continue to sacrifice their lives to save the others, "lamented in a statement Mark Cutts one of the UN officials for humanitarian coordination in Syria.

The province of Idleb is home to many people who have fled their homes in other parts of Syria due to fighting or rebel regimes.

Since the beginning of the military escalation, more than 820 civilians have died in the bombings, according to the OSDH. And more than 400,000 people have been displaced, according to the UN, which says it is afraid of a humanitarian "catastrophe".

The Idleb region has been agreed on a "demilitarized zone" concluded in September 2018 by rebel sponsor Ankara and Moscow. But this one was only partially applied, the jihadists having refused to withdraw.

Triggered in 2011 after the bloody repression by the regime of Bashar al-Assad of pro-democracy demonstrations, the war in Syria has claimed more than 370,000 lives and thrown into the exile of millions of people.

© 2019 AFP