BEIRUT (AP) — Hard-line Syrian rebel groups seized a strategic town Saturday in northwestern Syria, sending government troops fleeing after intense clashes that have seen the opposition take nearly all of a crucial province.
The takeover prompted retaliatory government air raids in the town center — as many as 30 airstrikes according to one activist group — that left an unknown number of people killed and wounded. Among those wounded was a TV reporter for an opposition station who entered the town with the rebels.
If they can hold the town of Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib province, rebel fighters from Islamic factions — including the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front — will have gained in only a few days a gateway to the Mediterranean coast, a refuge of embattled President Bashar Assad, and cut government supply lines from the coast to northern and central Syria. The town is one of the last bastions of Assad's government in the area and fighting around it continued Saturday.
The offensive, which rebels have called the "Battle of Victory," comes less than a month after the provincial capital, also called Idlib, fell to the opposition.
Opposition television station Orient News aired images inside the town showing rebel fighters milling in the town's central square, raising their black flag. Meanwhile, fighting continued Saturday in a sprawling agricultural plain south of the town, and activists said rebel fighters were gaining new ground.
A Twitter account affiliated with the Nusra Front posted pictures apparently from inside Jisr al-Shoughour Saturday, calling it "liberated." Other pictures posted on social media showed bodies of government troops piled in the street as rebels sat atop tanks in the town's center.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said the rebels completely controlled Jisr al-Shughour after government troops and allied forces fled south. The group said there were clashes on the outskirts of the town. A video the group posted showed civilians leaving the town accompanied by a number of government troops.
The government conceded its forces had left the town. A military official, quoted by Syrian state media, said government forces redeployed to surrounding villages to avoid civilian casualties after fierce battles with "armed terrorist groups" in Jisr al-Shughour.
Later, state TV said government aircraft targeted a convoy of fighters east of the town.
But the Observatory and the Local Coordination Committees, another activist group that tracks the conflict, said the air raids were in the town center. The Observatory counted at least 30 raids in the town and its environs. The LCC said at least six raids were in a square in the town's center. There were no immediate casualty figures.
The Orient News television network, which was airing live coverage of the rebels' takeover, said one of its reporters was injured and its broadcast vehicle destroyed in one of the raids. The reporter, Ammar Dandash, emotionally told the broadcaster that he was returning to Jisr al-Shughour, his hometown, for the first time in years with the rebels. "Today I return to my home after four years of being deprived of it," he said, before he was injured.
Asaad Kanjo, an activist in touch with residents of the town, said most civilians had stayed indoors, fearing government retaliation.
The Observatory said members of a government security agency also killed 23 detainees before they withdrew. Pictures shared on social media by the Nusra Front showed bodies of civilians piled in what they said was a local prison, near a hospital where fighters had earlier said government troops were taking cover.
Government fighters had reportedly also carried out a similar mass killing before withdrawing from Idlib city last month.
The fight for Jisr al-Shughour began Wednesday and activists have said thousands of fighters took part in the offensive, which first targeted military facilities and checkpoints outside of town.
The town of Jisr al-Shughour was one of the first towns to rise against Assad's regime, but has largely remained under government control despite briefly falling to the rebels in early 2011. The government accused the rebels there of killing over 100 soldiers, a charge they denied.
Activists say the fall of the town is of also of symbolic significance because a military camp on the town's outskirts had been used to target much of Idlib's countryside, leading to many casualties.
The Nusra Front and Syrian rebels have controlled the countryside and towns across Idlib province since 2012. After the fall of Idlib, the government moved its offices and staff to Jisr al-Shughour.
Assad has blamed Turkey for the fall of Idlib to Islamic fighters, saying Ankara provided "huge support" — logistical and military — that played the key role in the defeat of his forces.
Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year, has killed some 220,000 people, and wounded at least 1 million. At least 4 million Syrians have become refugees in neighboring countries. Nearly double that figure are displaced inside Syria because of the conflict.