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Syrian troops battle to free trapped forces

Syrian government forces advanced towards the rebel-held town of Jisr al-Shughur, where around 250 forces are trapped

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Syrian government forces advanced Saturday towards the rebel-held town of Jisr al-Shughur, where around 250 regime force members and their families are trapped in a hospital building, a monitor said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops were now within two kilometers (just over a mile) of where the group has been trapped since rebels seized Jisr al-Shughur in northwestern Idlib province two weeks ago.

“Regime forces and allied fighters are now two kilometers from the hospital and desperately want to save the 250 people besieged inside,” said Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman.

He said there was fierce fighting between rebels and army backed by air strikes as they sought to approach the hospital on Jisr al-Shughur’s southeastern outskirts.

Regime forces inside the hospital have been battling rebels to keep them from entering the building.

It remains unclear how much food and ammunition is available to those trapped, and how many of the 250 people inside are civilians.

A group of rebels including Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Al-Nusra Front seized Jisr al-Shughur on April 25, shortly after capturing the provincial capital of Idlib city.

The loss of the town, strategically located near the border with rebel-backer Turkey and alongside the regime stronghold of Latakia province, was a new setback for the government.

Since then, the regime has also lost one of its remaining military bases in the province.

On Wednesday, President Bashar al-Assad pledged that the army would “arrive soon to these heroes trapped in the Jisr al-Shughur hospital”.

The same day, government forces began a counteroffensive in the province.

Elsewhere on Saturday, official news agency SANA said at least five civilians were killed and 19 others wounded by rebel shelling in northern Aleppo.

The deaths occurred in the Salaheddin neighborhood of the government-controlled west of the city.

Once Syria’s economic powerhouse, Aleppo has been ravaged by the country’s war and is divided between government control in the west and rebel control in the east.

Regime forces regularly carry out air strikes and drop so-called barrel bombs on the rebel side, and opposition fighters often fire rockets into the government side.

More than 220,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests that spiraled into a war after a regime crackdown.