Maaret al-Numan is a strategic prize lying on the M5 highway linking Damascus to Syria''s second city Aleppo, a main artery coveted by the regime.
It is also the second biggest city in the beleaguered northwestern province of Idlib, the last stronghold of anti-regime forces and home to some three million people -- half of them displaced by violence in other areas.
Damascus loyalists have since Friday seized around 14 towns and villages around the city, reaching its eastern outskirts, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday.
They have also cut a section of the M5 highway leading north from Maaret al Numan to Idlib city, according to the Observatory and the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper.
Retaking full control of the highway is essential to the government''s efforts to rekindle a moribund economy.
The fighting has forced hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes, with hundreds of vehicles on Monday packing a road leading out of the flashpoint region under heavy bombardment.
"Maaret al-Numan is nearly besieged," said Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman, explaining that regime forces were now stationed south, east and north of the city.
Abdul Rahman said Damascus loyalists were now pushing from the west and northwest in a bid to tighten the noose around the opposition holdout.
An AFP correspondent in the region said regime forces were also trying to reach the city''s southwestern edges to prevent rebels and jihadists from falling back. Idlib and nearby areas of Hama, Aleppo and Latakia provinces are dominated by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, led by members of the country''s former Al-Qaeda franchise.
In recent months, the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad has chipped away territory under jihadist control in the four provinces, despite several ceasefire agreements.
Assad has repeatedly vowed to reassert control over the whole of Syria. An AFP correspondent said Maaret al-Numan had become a ghost town, but the Observatory maintained that some civilians had remained in the area despite the escalation.
Fearing further regime advances, residents of several towns and villages located north of Maarat al-Numan, have started to flee, according to the Observatory and an AFP correspondent.
Pick-up trucks carrying entire families from the town of Saraqib and the Jabal al-Zawiya region packed a road leading north towards the border with Turkey, said an AFP correspondent.
The vehicles were crammed with mattresses, clothes and household appliances, many of them belonging to families who had previously fled Maaret al-Numan. (AFP) NSA
Disclaimer :- This story has not been edited by Outlook staff and is auto-generated from news agency feeds. Source: PTI