BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian troops pushed their way into a northwestern rebel-held enclave Wednesday, clashing with insurgents and capturing a strategically located village at the southern edge, widening an offensive that had previously involved mainly aerial bombings and shelling.
The pro-government Central Military Media said the troops entered Kfar Nabudah, a rebel-held village on the southwestern edge of the enclave, igniting heavy clashes with the insurgents. The CMM said the government forces seized control of the village after hours of fighting and began clearing it of land mines.
This is the most serious challenge yet to a cease-fire in the region brokered by Russia and Turkey in September.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed the ground operation, which was launched with close air support. It also said government forces captured the village after clashes that killed at least nine soldiers and 18 rebels. There was no report of casualties in the pro-government media.
Rebel groups said they targeted government vehicles and detonated a car bomb.
Capturing Kfar Nabudah severs the link between the southern edge of the rebel-held enclave in Hama province with its western and eastern flanks, as well farther to the north. Activist-operated media group Enab Baladi called Kfar Nabudah the "first line of defense of Idlib."
Rebel spokesman Nabji al-Mustafa confirmed the government seized the village, adding his fighters remain on its edge. He said the new fighting has a caused a new wave of displacement from rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun town, which sits on the highway linking Aleppo and Damascus and is less than 15 kilometers (9 miles) to the east of Kfar Nabudah.
Khan Sheikhoun has come under increasing fire after Kfar Nabudah was captured, al-Mustafa said.
The latest wave of violence, which began April 30, has raised fears the government may launch a wider offensive to retake the area, home to around 3 million people. Already, over 150,000 have been displaced within the enclave, according to the U.N., mostly civilians escaping front lines.
"They entered Kfar Nabuda but the clashes continue with government forces at the edge," al-Mustafa said.
In recent days government forces have intensified their bombardment of the rebel-held areas in northwestern Syria, as a cease-fire appears to have all but collapsed. Government forces seized a village and a strategic hill on Monday.
The government appears to be trying to secure a major highway that cuts through the rebel-held enclave. The highway was to reopen before the end of 2018 following the cease-fire agreement, but it remains closed.
The World Health Organization on Wednesday strongly condemned attacks on health facilities in the region.
In just nine days since April 29, WHO said 12 health structures have been hit. On May 5 alone, two major hospitals and another facility were hit, killing three health workers, the U.N. agency said.
WHO said there are now no functioning hospitals in northern Hama, affecting close to 300,000, and emergency care is being provided by only three surgical units supported by the U.N. agency.