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Syrian forces consolidate control of Aleppo, pledge to eradicate remaining insurgents

epa08192586 Smoke rises during government forces bombing on the village of Sarmin, near Idlib, Syria, 04 February 2020. According to Syrian official news reports, the Syrian army units launched an operation against the last rebel-held stronghold in Idlib and the surrounding areas. According to the UN, 520,000 people were displaced since the operations began in December 2019. EPA-EFE/YAHYA NEMAH

BEIRUT, Feb 17 (Reuters) - The Syrian army said on Monday it had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo's northwestern countryside and it would press on with its campaign to wipe out militant groups "wherever they are found".

The advances were made after President Bashar al-Assad’s forces drove insurgents from the M5 highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, reopening the fastest route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years in a big strategic gain for Assad.

Backed by heavy Russian air strikes, the government forces have been fighting since the start of the year to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighbouring Idlib province where anti-Assad insurgents hold their last strongholds.

The advances have sent hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians fleeing towards the border with Turkey in the biggest single displacement of the nine-year-old war.

It has also upset the fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing factions in the conflict.

Turkey and Russia are set to hold a new round of talks in Moscow on Monday after several demands by Ankara that Assad’s forces should back down and a ceasefire be put in place.

However, the Syrian armed forces said in a statement they would push on with what they called their “sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organisations wherever on Syria’s geography they are found”.

They had taken full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside, they said.

Pro-Damascus Al-Watan newspaper said the M5 highway, a vital artery in northern Syria, would be ready for civilian use by the end of the week. Aleppo city, once Syria’s economic hub, was the scene of some of the most viscious fighting of the war between 2012 and 2016.

The Syrian army had also opened the international roadway from northern Aleppo to the towns of Zahraa and Nubl towards the Turkish border, a military news service run by Lebanon’s Assad-allied pro-Damascus Hezbollah group said.

The insurgent forces arrayed against Assad include Western-backed rebels and jihadist militants.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has said his military will drive back Syrian forces if they do not withdraw from Idlib by the end of the month. On Saturday, he appeared to move that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the month if there was no pull-back.

Alarmed by the new refugee crisis on its border, Turkey has sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia.

(Reporting by Eric Knecht and Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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